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.

28 November 2016

S.S Bega

begaREF: Bega after construction in 1883. Mitchell Library/State Library of NSW.

Following on from a previous story about the highly respected skipper known as “Captain Bishop” this is a remarkable story of the sinking of the S.S.Bega while in his command under mysterious circumstances 4 miles off Tathra on the 5th of April 1908.

The S.S Bega was a iron screwed steamer passenger Ship; 567 tons; 57.7x7.5x4.9 m.; Owned by Illawarra & South Coast Steam Navigation Co. Ltd.; Built at Russell & Co. In 1883.

The Bega was along side the public wharf at Tathra loading passengers and cargo, which  included over 2000 cheeses, butter, racehorses, prized livestock for the Royal Easter Show, 176 pigs, furniture, wool and a special consignment of £2000 in gold coinage (561 ounces in weight) for the Sydney Branch of the Commonwealth Bank.  Before leaving Bega wharf at 7pm the ship was displaying a slight list to port but this didn't raise any concerns, on checking there was no water found in the hull and this wasn’t unusual and would soon be corrected by carefully adjusting the cargo once the vessel was underway.

The weather was exceptionally clear and calm with a very slight roll from the north accompanied by a light northerly breeze.  By 10pm the Bega was off the coast  between Tanja and Cuttagee.  The list to port had become decidedly worse, The captain ordered the sounding of the fore and aft holds and found no water,  the captain ordered the crew to move some of the pigs to the starboard side, this worked for a short time,  but the Bega then listed even worrse to the starboard side, he then ordered the pigs to be moved back to the port side,  which became impossible as the pigs were now slipping on the steeply angled deck,  he then ordered the men to jettison the pigs overboard in an attempt to arrest the list. As the wind was freshening from the starboard the captain decided to turn the vessel very slowly around so the wind and small swell were working to his favor, at first the ship remained upright but suddenly listed even worse to the starboard side.


This proved to be of no avail, the ship was listing bad and getting deeper by the head,  suggesting water was getting in by the forepart somewhere.    After the ship turned the situation quickly deteriorated, with water now entering the ship at a considerable rate  by the port holes and hatches.
The captain ordered blue light to be burnt to try and attract a passing steamer seen about 2 miles off, it went un-noticed and the steamer disappeared into the night,  by the glare of the blue lights he saw the side upper door open on the starboard side, and water rushing in,  in large quantities.

Captain Bishop ordered all passengers to the deck and he moved swiftly to get the life boats in the water as the ship was now at an extreme angle making walking across her decks almost impossible. The vessel carried three lifeboats, one on the port side and two on the starboard side,  because of the extreme angle only one on the starboard side was able to be set free of it's davits, this was most fortunate otherwise they would have had only one life boat with to many passengers.    All the passengers women, children and men were transferred safely and with great skill and calm, life vests were fitted to all passengers as they left the ship...by this time the lee side was level with the water,  unfortunately one passenger a Mr. David Clarke of Candelo, who had already been ill reportedly died of fright during the ordeal and his body was loaded into the now crowded boats.

Captain Bishop despite repeated requests by his crew to leave the sinking ship stayed on board and insisted on one last look around the straining, growning vessel, each lerch of the vessel could have been it’s last. 

Second mate - "I had to call out to him to hurray up.  He replied,   'I want to have a look round first"  and he walked to the engine,  looked around,  then round the funnels, and into the saloon,  before he came on to the raft. I heard him say,  " Well, they have all gone, I suppose I should get away to.    " He was the last to leave the ship."

Young Sailor - "Yes he looked grand standing there,  the last man ."  "we all gave him three cheers on entering the raft"

They pulled away from the ship to about 60 yards and aproximatly 20 minutes later the ships bow sank raising the stearn above the water and rapidly decended into the dark depths, as she did the lights on board went out,  leaving a deathly stillness and calm over the scene.

Captain Bishop - "The officers and crew worked splendidly, and order was thouroughly well maintained.  If this had not been so, there must have been considerable loss of life. The successful launching of the boats  and the placing of people in them, was entirly due to the splendid manner in which the officers and crew obeyed orders."

The two boats were lashed together so they would not be separated and the men started to pull for shore,  this was extremely difficult as the boats were full of water almost up to their waists.  everyone not rowing bailed using whatever means they had...the ladies resorted to using their skirts and by this means they kept the boats afloat and moving,  as morning drew near it became very cold, limbs were shaking and teeth chattered,  the boats were very crowded,  the dead body took up a lot of room and people had to sit on the body,  people took turns at standing up and stretching their legs one at a time, any more could have turned a boat over..

Second mate -  "I was pulling nearly all of the 11 hours. and I had to rest my feet under the dead man's arm pits."

During the ordeal Captain Bishop kept spirits high by calling on everyone to sing songs like "Pull for the shore sailors,  We won't get home till morning,  and Good-bye Sydney Town." .


Young sailor  -  ' Captain Bishop is a great old chap.  He kep his cool all the time,  and seemed to think of everyone.  When we were on the raft, he use to call out now and then, 'Common boys, pull up." and we seemed to be able to pull twice as hard."

Because of the winds it was useless to try and pull directly towards shore, Captain Bishop made the decision to use the current and the slight wind to as much advatage as they could.  After 11 hours of rowing and thirteen miles from the place where the ship went down at daybreak they found themslves only 300 yards from shore, but it wasn't until 8 o'clock before they could finally land on a sandy beach.  The survivors stripped off their wet cloths and layed them out in the sun to dry, and others took to running about to get the stiffness out of their legs.

Crew man -  "We ran about on the beach to get rid of the stiffness,  we must have looked like  a bunch of savages,"

The Captain walked a mile to the nearest farm house...sending one of the crew ahead, he  allerted the farmer a Mr. Koellener who immediatly left to raise the alarm,  upon arrival at the farm house the farmers daughter had prepared a bowl of porridge for each person.

Captain Bishop - "My word the food was acceptable."

There was much specultion as to why a ship of this calibre would have suddenly for no reason sprung a leak and sunk.
Some suggested foul play, accerting the 2000 pounds of gold could have been a motive for sinking the ship.

Captain Bishop was asked why and how his ship so mysteriously sunk.


Correspondent - 'do you think there is anything suspicious in the affair ?' "
Captain Bishop - " I don't know what to think. It is a mystery that cannot be solved.  We have been out in the Bega in some terrible weather, including the worst of the Maitland and Nemesis gales.  She never gave us any trouble before.  It was something down below,  but what I cannot say.  She was a staunch ship,  and could not have opened up.  She went down in 30 to 40 fathoms about 4 miles off the shore,  so I suppose she will never be located."

Correspondent - 'Did it occur to you to beach the steamer ?"
Captain Bishop - "It did occur to me,  but there was no time to get to her ashore,  and in any case,  it might have made matters worse had I tried to do so."

The Bega was recently examined by the Department of Navigation that report states.
"The Bega was in first class seagoing order and thouroughly equipped.  She carried five men in excess of her compliment,  and bother here deck and engine room officers are capable men.  Not only the captain but the first and second mates are master mariners,  while the superintending engineer of the company had charge of the engines. The Bega was completely equipped with life-saving appliance,  and in every way our requirements were met."

”Captain Bishop had a reputation for carefulness and great knowledge of the coast line, all the officers  were highly qualified, experienced and highly regarded.”

The mystery of why a first class ship like the S.S Bega suddenly foundered in favourable weather will forever remain another maritime mystery. 

Marine Enquiry Conclusion.  20th June 1908.
"As to the action of the captain when he realized the danger of his position fault cannot be found, and both he and his officers appear to have done all they could to save life when the ship was abandoned, in which endeavours they were happily successful".
No action was taken against Captain Bishop or any member of his crew."

The last words are from  Captain Bishop - "Had the weather been rough there would not have been many of us left to tell the tale".

S.S Bega Found.
Captain Bishop - "She went down in 30 to 40 fathoms about 4 miles off the shore,  so I suppose she will never be located."


After laying in isolation since she sank to her final resting place on the sea floor,  the S.S Bega must have thought she would never see another soul sweep across her decks again.  But in 2004 with diving equipment Captain Bishop  would never have envisaged. A deep diving group calling themselves  The Sydney Project slowly descended upon the remains and discovered what was a treasure trove of artifacts lying amongst the rusting remains of her boilers and superstructure. 

The discovery.
The site of the Bega wreck was the subject of years of searching by two Bermagui men, retired sub-sea engineer Fred Billington and charter boat operator, Davidb Prior. The men thought they had found the site in May 2004, when they passed over it with a magnetometer. They verified their find in September 2004 when using a homemade drop video camera recorded the remains of an iron steamship. The NSW Heritage Office received notification of the discovery of the wreck by Fred Billington and David Prior in September, 2004.   REF: NSW Heritage Office
This is a
fascinating link to follow with many photographs of the untouched wreck and it’s objects.
Capture 1

REF: NSW Heritage Office – Follow this link to read how the Heritage of a wreck of this nature is handled, most informative.

The wreck  is a Heritage Listed Wreck and nothing can be disturbed or recovered from the wreck. Her final remains will one day dissolves back into the elements she was made from, and her artifacts will sink below the sands leaving nothing for future generations to see.

As to the whereabouts of the 2000 ponds of gold sovereigns that remains another mystery.

ss-BEGA-Illawarra-S-N-Co-SydneyREF: http://picclick.com.au/ss-BEGA-Illawarra-S-N-Co-Sydney-201708978988.html

Diving on the S.S Bega.

This is an interesting video of a group of divers visiting the remains of the S.S Bega.




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