HOME OF THE LADY DENMAN - Local history isn't always about the big story - the everyday story of life in the early development of the region can be a fascinating, entertaining and educational journey.

1 September 2014

The last of the Sixty Milers.

Around 1975 I did my first dive with Canterbury Underwater Club. The club was made up of spear fishermen and experienced recreational scuba divers with a great interest in shipwrecks.
On my first dive with the club we travelled approximately 7 kilometers north from Sydney heads on board an old stinking fishing trawler with a dead gull hanging from the main mast it was hired as our dive platform for the day.
Our first dive was on the wreck of the Birchgrove Park a 640 ton coastal collier laying on her side in approximately 45 meters (150ft) of water.
A really fascinating dive, highlighted by the huge school of fish that hovered over her remains that parted and closed back in as you followed the anchor line down.
Large Kingfish circled and looked almost transparent as they travelled in and out of the the light rays.
The water on this day was very clear, it’s an amazing feeling leaving the surface, the weight of twin scuba tanks on your back, becoming aware of your breathing like never before. Slowly descending the water gets dimmer with depth and the excitement builds, the dark shape of this lonely piece of maritime history slowly starts to appear below. The wreck was still in good condition back then, we had anchored right on top of the wreck, hooked into some of the twisted structure, swimming down the side of the hull to the sea floor we were greeted with large Woobbygong Sharks laying on the sand.
At the time I didn’t know anything about the wreck or the circumstances leading to it’s sinking, but as I swam along it’s rusting hull and peered into the dark open hatches I wondered what the drama was that bought this coastal steamer to her final resting place. It sparked a fascination for wrecks and their stories, that has stayed with me since that first dive.

The Birchgrove Park. The last of the Sixty Milers.
birchgrove-park-24-july-193 Built in Scotland in 1930 she arrived in Sydney in 1930.
640 ton, 153ft 4in long.
She was fitted out for coal handling and serviced the east coast including Bulli, her main trade was north to Newcastle.
1941 – She was commissioned by the Navy and fitted with a 12 pond gun and used as a mine sweeper.
1945 - After her war service she was returned to her owners and recommenced her coal carrying operations.
1956 – In command by Captain Lynch and setting from Newcastle in mild sea conditions and expecting the same for the whole voyage, the Birchgrove Parks hatch covers were only covered by light tarpaulins.
A young crew of 14, 11 under the age of thirty eight.
….’She’s unsafe, one day she’ll go, I only hope I’m not on her”.
This fateful statement was made by second mate Thomas Kenny after the Birchgrove Park had surprisingly passed it’s latest Marine Survey.
Expecting good weather she set off…but only a half hour into her voyage she met a strong south east change and in a short time the sea’s character had changed dramatically with a quickly rising sea.
With her decks awash with water and entering her inadequately covered hatches and despite repeated attempts to address the situation she began to list badly to port.
With water rising in the hold fast the crew realized the collier was doomed, the Captain ordered all hands on deck and to put on their life jackets.
The ships crew huddled on deck trying to avoid being washed off, the Captain maintained his position on the bridge getting an SOS signal away to South Head Signal Station by lamp until the ship rolled over and started to sink.
2.45am - The Birchgrove Park capsized and sank on August 2nd
Rescue vessels rushed to the disaster and picked up 4 survivors, 10 drowned including Captain Laurence Lynch and second mate Thomas Kelly who spoken those fateful words..

Check Michael Fadyens site for some underwater images of the wreck

Video taken on the wreck.

I have wept for dear dead brothers, perished in the lost Dunbar.

Image from the collection of the
Power House Museum.

These words are a line from a poem penned by by Henry Kendall (1839 - 1882)

On the same day the club decided to do a second dive on the wreck of the Dunbar, one of Australia’s best known and tragic wrecks, she lies in shallow water just south of Sydney heads.
On our trip back from the Birchgove Park to the Dunbar site, I stuck up a conversation with experienced wreck diver John Sumner, he filled my head with stories about the ship wrecks he had dived and a brief history about the wreck of the Dunbar, John became a good friend and I did many wreck dives with him in the following years.
On this dive I was lucky enough to find a few relics from the wreck scattered about amongst the rocks.

Some of the relics can be seen here in a previous article on the Dunbar.

A Tragic loss of life.
Dunbar fdtd 1The Dunbar arrived off Sydney Heads on the night of Thursday, 20 August 1857 in appalling conditions. Heavy rain and squalls reduced visibility to a few hundred metres, obscuring the sandstone cliffs at the entrance to Port Jackson. Captain Green had made a number of visits to Port Jackson and had been captain on the Dunbar on its 1856 voyage. On the approach to Port Jackson in 1857 Green misjudged the ship’s position in relation to the heads because of the poor visibility. On the turn for the run into port he believed that they were approaching North Head. When the shout ‘breakers ahead!’ was heard, Captain Green, still believing their position to be north of the harbour entrance, ordered ‘hard-a-port’. Instead of entering the safety of the harbour, the Dunbar crashed onto boulders at the foot of South Head.
The impact brought down the masts, huge waves sank the lifeboats and the Dunbar heaved broadside in the swell. Lying on side on to the cliffs, the vessel broke up almost immediately. One man, able seaman James Johnson, was washed onto a ledge on the cliff face was the only survivor. The remaining 58 crew and all 63 passengers drowned. REF: http://www.migrationheritage.nsw.gov.au/exhibition/objectsthroughtime/dunbar/

James Johnson was later employed in the pilot service at Newcastle, New South Wales, and was instrumental in rescuing the sole survivor of the paddle steamer SS Cawarra wrecked there in 1866.

The Dunbar was launched on 30 November 1853 for London shipowner Duncan Dunbar and entered the passenger and cargo trade between London and Sydney early the following year

Below is a link to another poem that soul survivor James Johnson commented on. “ and I am certain that it is the best account I have seen in print”.  

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