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.

23 May 2017

The Schooner Huddersfield and the missing white women mystery.


1919 a large crowd of people had gathered on the shoreline of Currambene Creek to watch the launching of the Schooner Huddersfield.    Everything went as planned as she slipped effortlessly across the timber slipway entering the cold water of Currambene Creek.  The successful launch was greeted with a loud cheer from the crowd who had travelled from all over the district to watch this historic event.


Launch of the Huddersfield in 1919


The Huddersfield, a 3 masted auxiliary topsail schooner built to the order of Mr Sidney Moore by local shipbuilder Joseph Dent at Huskisson,  she measured 112ft long overall and weighed 174 tonnes, had a loaded draft of 9ft aft and 7ft 9in forward at a cost of 7500 pounds.
Built of locally sourced spotted gum hardwood including her 3 masts,  which at the time would normally have been from Oregon.  Quite amazingly her keel was made from one piece and her kelson was also in one piece, including a stinger 14x4, underneath the deck in one piece.  This say's a lot about the local timber available at the time.
Sheathed in copper she was regarded as a strong beautifully crafted vessel,  built by one of the best boat builders on the coast.

After the launch, the vessel was taken to Sydney to have her Scandia crude oil engine of 100 h.p. fitted.  She was capable of a speed of 61/2 knots. She also had a crude oil winch fitted capable of lifting 3 tonnes supplied by Messrs. Nelson and Robertson of Sydney.

1920 - Friday 7th May.
Once the engines were fitted and before she could be taken to sea she underwent trials to test her new engines and equipment.  From the time the vessel cast off until she returned to an anchorage in Rose Bay the engine worked without a hitch,  although the contract speed was for 5 knots the vessel exceeded all expectations by doing 71/2. The vessel would be capable of maintaining a speed of 61/2 knots per hour on a consumption of four gallons of crude per hour.

Her new commander Captain Muir was reported "exceedingly pleased with the trial and is looking forward to a smart trip across to Gisborne New Zealand."

Saturday 8th May.  
The Huddersfield's maiden voyage was to Gisborne carrying a cargo of 74,000 feet of hardwood, she
made the trip across in 16 days which was at the time regarded as a good run, she was loaded with timber and sailed back to Sydney.

1922 - After many successful trips across the Tasman for her owners she was chartered into the cattle-carrying trade between Broome and Port Moresby. Along with the cattle, she would carry a large variety of cargo, which could include benzine, kerosene, timber, dynamite and sundries.

1923 - Her contracts had run out and she spent 7 months laying idle in Sydney Harbour before being overhauled. The overhaul included adding passenger accommodation on her deck.

1924  March 13th -  At the completion of the overhaul the Huddersfield underwent trials before being placed into commission, replacing the Rachel Cohen in the service of the Federal Government.

1924 May 28th  - Under the command of captain H.C Bowden she left Sydney bound for Darwin where she arrived on the 7th of July after an uneventful pleasant trip.  Captain Bowden had been her skipper for three years, the crew consisted of the mate, driver, three able seamen, two ordinary seamen, and the cook - nine men all told.  Bowden was a very experienced skipper with 50 years of experience at sea,  he had sailed the Huddersfield from Australia to New Zealand and from Queensland across to New Guinea with 165 head of cattle without losing one head, which was quite a feat in those days.

Speaking of the Huddersfield he said, 'he has never yet been aboard a better vessel"


1924 November 6th - The Huddersfield was caught up in legal proceedings when a warrant of execution, issued by the local court in Holmes versus Boucaut Bay Company
and the Huddersfield was seized by the bailiff for debt amounting to 72 pounds, for wages to members of the crew. The news of the arrest was widely publicised but this was nothing
compared to what was to come as the Huddersfield was about to become involved in one of the greatest mysteries of her time.


The Huddersfield name made headlines across the world when she became involved in the failed search for two white women who were alleged to have been taken captive by aboriginals in the Northern Territory.  The women were reported to be apart of a small group who survived the sinking of the  Douglas Mawson which  foundered near Groote Eylandt during a cyclone en route from Burketown to Thursday Island, the rest of the survivors 10 men were reportedly attacked and speared to death by the local aboriginals.

The Douglas Mawson was also built and launched on the south coast of NSW at Bawley Point on the 11th of  April  1914.

1923 March 31st - During a voyage between Norman River and Thursday Island, the small steamer ran into a devastating cyclone.  When she didn't arrive at the expected time at her desination concerns were raised.  The area she travelled in had just been hit by a massive cyclone, it was hoped she had found refuge and was just running late. 
After a day or two concerns for the vessels and her passenger's safety started to gain momentum.  An extensive search was carried out without finding any trace of the missing vessel. 
The Douglas Mawson was presumed lost with all passengers and crew.  Time past and the Douglas Mawson name slowly drifted from the minds of the people involved.

July 1924 - 16 months after the loss of the Mawson a startling report appeared in the Brisbane Daily.  The message was to the effect that an Australian blackboy employed as a lugger hand had talked with natives on Cunningham Island, one of a small group off Arnhem Bay. He told them that he had heard of two white women who were held captive by blacks on the mainland of the Northern Territory.  One of them with a white girl infant was living in the camp of a wild black known as Bokara, and the other a younger woman was held by another wild native named Majara.


Huddersfield Expedition.

Capture 4

The news caused a sensation all over Australia, people called for the Government to send a rescue party immediately.  The Federal Government including the Prime Minister and cabinet minister, Mr Pearce were widely condemned for taking another four weeks to look into the matter.  Eventually, orders were given, not to send a warship,  but a three - masted schooner,  the Huddersfield.
The expedition became known as the Huddersfield Expedition. The Huddersfield was loaded with an armed party comprising  about 20 policemen,  their horses, a number of blacks trackers with constable Lovegrove in charge.
The decision to use the Huddersfield instead of a war ship was widely critisised because of the time it took the Huddersfield to reach it's destination.  The voyage took the Huddersfield 14 days for a journey of 375 miles,  at an average of 1 knot an hour to cover the distance from Darwin to  Elcho Island.  The Hudderfield's motor could not be used for some reason only working for about 15 minutes before stopping. The ships wireless would only receive but could not send messages.

Reports at the time told a terrible story of the murders, this news sparked much community outrage.  Papers all over the world ran stories about the tragedy the Huddersfield name became famous the world over.

Capture 2

Four Japanes murdered.
The Aboriginals of Arnheim Land were regarded as the hardest and fiercest blacks in Australia with some groups never having seen a white person.  Four Japanese had been murdered on the coast not long before this incident.

The search party did an extensive search, following leads given to them by other people who reported seeing the women, the terrain was difficult and despite doing everything they could with the resources they had, nothing was ever found.

Dispite many reports from other sources at the time verifying the story,  the Government official Mr. Pearce issued statements saying the Government believed the blacks had been misunderstood and that the report of the holding of Mrs. Willet and her daughter was without foundation.

From time to time over many years stories surfaced to keep alive the belief that Mrs. Willet and her daughter continued to be captive of the blacks, until at last these stories died away,  and no one can now know for certain whether the original stories were true,  and if so,  what fate overcame the mother and daughter.

1928 - The Huddersfield returned from her costly and failed expedition in October 1924 and spent many years lying at anchor opposite Stokes Hill.  She sprang a leak and was reported to have a stream of water coming into her from a space about a foot long and an inch wide. Her pumps were employed and the water reduced, the hole was repaired but she was still taking water, the owners stripped her of any worthwhile parts. She was in a bad condition with unconfirmed reports her hull was being eaten by toredoe worms.
imageTuesday 4th December For many years she was used as floating storage by pearlers and slowly deteriorated from the once beautiful ship to a rotting hulk.
Wreckage was found washed up on the beach at Port Hill and was identified as coming from the Huddersfield, she had sunk at her moorings.  At the time the vessel had not been moved for several years and had one caretaker on board.  The news of the sinking was passed on to her Captain A.J Swanson. He was in charge of the schooner when she was chartered by the Federal Government in 1924 for the Huddersfield Expedition.  At the time of her sinking she was owned by |Mr. Stretton of Darwin who had purchased her for about
105 pounds a few months prior.

2009 - Discovery of the Huddersfield.
Divers working in Darwin Harbour discovered wreckage in 1996 but the wreckage wasn't confirmed as the Huddersfield until 2009.


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