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Port Adelaide's Mysterious Memorial

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by Hazel Cochrane (subscribe)
I am a freelance writer, photographer & fitness instructor. I enjoy hiking and kayaking and writing walking. Facebook https://www.facebook.com/greataussiewalks
Published June 16th 2016
What's the deal with the ship's wheel?
You've probably walked along the waterfront at Port Adelaide, passing a ship's wheel buried in concrete. Have you ever wondered about the story behind the memorial?

Take yourself back to the earlier days in South Australia. It's 5:30am on August 5, 1859, 82 passengers and 31 crew boarded the SS Admella at Port Adelaide. Seven horses were loaded on to the Scottish built iron steamer, together with flour destined for the Chinese goldfields and 93 tons of copper. Among the passengers were two sons of the president of the Legislative Council, owners of four race horses destined for the Intercolonial Cup horse race in Melbourne, and wealthy merchantmen from Adelaide.

Admella, Port Adelaide, Navigator, Hazel Cochrane
The Navigator Memorial. Photo: Hazel Cochrane


After an uneventful trip to Backstairs Passage, the ocean waves began to swell, relentlessly rocking the ship in the waters below Kangaroo Island. With the lives of his passengers and crew at risk, Captain Hugh McEwan, attempted to change course but a submerged reef became the undoing of the Admella. In the early hours of August 6, the terrified passengers could only watch from the deck, as the ship began to crack, only 15 minutes after the collision. What followed was an eight-day drama considered one of the worst disasters in Australian maritime history.

Men, women and children were left clinging to the bow and stern, as the freezing waves crashed over them. Unsuccessful attempts were made to lower the lifeboats. The first lifeboat was crushed by the ship's funnel, the other lifeboat and a crew member were washed away.

As the sun rose the next morning, the captain distributed the remaining food to the 56 people who remained alive, huddled together on the slowly sinking wreckage of the ship. As thirst overcame them, some began drinking sea water, causing dehydration and death.

Desperation, following the failed attempt to attract the attention of two passing ships, the Admella's sister ship Havillah and the Bombay, caused some survivors to try the futile swim to shore through the shark infested waters. Then, as the bulkhead gave way, more lives were lost.

Later that day, two of the crew made a raft by lashing parts of the forward mast together. Battling the merciless waves for over three hours, they made their way to the shore, just 1.5km from the wreckage. Tired and weak, they managed to walk 25km through sand dunes and scrubland to the Cape Northumberland Lighthouse. The lighthouse was not equipped with a telegraph, but Ben Germein, the quick thinking lighthouse keeper, borrowed a neighbour's horse and rode to Mt Gambier in order to telegraph the authorities about the plight of the Admella.

Admella, Port Adelaide, Navigator, Hazel Cochrane
Photograph of a painting of the SS Admella B14689 State Library of South Australia


Many more passengers and crew had been swept out to sea before the rescue mission commenced almost 48 hours later. Two ships, the Corio from Port Adelaide and the Ladybird from Portland struggled to reach the site of the wreck over the new few days. Severe storms forced rescuers back from the wreckage, lifeboats were swamped and lives were lost. Attempts to attach lines to the wreck with rockets failed. There was little the rescuers could do.

A land-based search party from Robe arrived on horseback to join the rescue mission. Patching one of the Admella's broken lifeboats, which had washed ashore, with soap and canvas, they tried without success to launch another rescue attempt. Peter and Demetrius Donnell, fishermen from Guichen Bay, set off in their whale boat to search for the wreck, becoming instrumental in the rescue.

As daylight broke on the fifth day, with the cold and hungry survivors still clinging to the wreckage, the rescuers battled on, unable to launch lifeboats or row out to the wreck before being forced to temporarily abandon the rescue. It would be two more long, cold days before the next rescue attempt was made.

On the Saturday, the patched lifeboat from the Admella and a lifeboat from the Corio finally managed to traverse the raging surf to reach the wreck. Three people made it safely to the shore, sadly one person drowned when the second lifeboat capsized.

It was nine days. before the rough seas subsided enough to allow the Portland to come alongside the 19 survivors still clinging to the rear section of the Admella. The survivors practically fell into the lifeboat before being transferred to the Ladybird and on to the town of Portland.

Nine days after the Admella hit the reef, on Sunday August 14, 1859 the survivors were carried ashore at Portland. Twenty-two men, one woman and one boy survived one of the worst disasters in South Australian maritime history. It would be hard to imagine how cold, weak and hungry the survivors must have been, how difficult the rescue effort had been and how many lives were lost.

Admella, Port Adelaide, Navigator, Hazel Cochranea
Photograph of Mr Wally (Walter) Riedel, taken on 30 December 1960, with the bell from the 'Admella'. BRG-347-2005 State Library of South Australia


Prompted by the Admella disaster, a commission into marine safety determined that a design fault caused the ship to break after only 15 minutes on the reef. The review of the rescue mission led to improvements in safety standards including the installation of a telegraph at the Cape Northumberland lighthouse. Medals and rewards were received by those who participated in the rescue operation.

Originally unveiled in 1992 as a memorial to those who had lost their lives at sea, the Navigator Memorial was relocated from St Vincent Street to the current location on the Port Adelaide waterfront.

The large ship's wheel, longitude and latitude, compass points and a new black granite block was unveiled and rededicated at a candle light vigil at 5:30am on August 5, 2009, marking the exact time the SS Admella set off on the final journey in 1859 during which 89 people would perish.

Port Adelaide, Hazel Cochrane
Port Adelaide Wharf Today. Photo: Hazel Cochrane


Next time you walk down the waterfront at Port Adelaide, past the lighthouse and other attractions, pause a moment to reflect on the SS Admella and our maritime history, so rich in Port Adelaide, which makes up part of our South Australian story.
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Why? Walk along the wharf to see our history.
When: Anytime
Where: Port Adelaide Wharf
Cost: Free
Your Comment
A very interesting article Hazel. I recently read a book featuring this ship wreck 'SS Admella (WANTED: Miss Jane Mutta Book 2)' by Australian author Ryn Shell so I was intrigued to read your article. I wasn't aware there was any memorial to the wreck.
by Gayle Beveridge (score: 3|6160) 1003 days ago
Loved the article. I've been to Port Adelaide many times but next time I'll be looking at the ship's wheel with fresh eyes. Such a terrible disaster which is so easily lost in the annals of time unless someone like you (Hazel) has the tenacity to write about it and bring it to life for us.
by janjo (score: 0|3) 990 days ago
Well written, Hazel! Probably not many people know of the tragedy, but hopefully your article will provide the information. The memorial at the wharf will give us an opportunity to recall the event and the efforts of those who helped the survivors. It was also good to hear that the event resulted in improvements in safety practices of the time.
by pmark (score: 0|7) 999 days ago
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