As you approach the beach at Thirroul, on the south coast between Sydney and Wollongong, there is a grassed area with picnic tables leading up to the bathing pavilion. The car park has a monument and I thought it might be worth a closer look. It reads: This monument was erected by residents of the district to the memory of Captain McKee, officers and crew of the Brig Amy which was totally wrecked on Thirroul Beach Sunday 13th February 1898.
The brig had left Wollongong at 9 am on that day, loaded most likely with coal. A cyclone of monsoon origin moved from Brisbane down along the southern coast and the boat was driven ashore near Thirroul.
When it was clear that the ship was in distress, a large crowd gathered on the beach, forming a human chain and managing to reach within a few yards of the captain and crew, but all were lost to the waves. A newspaper report described the scene as follows:
The sea was so severe that no boat could live in it. One of the rescue party, named Tom Birch, an old soldier, upon arriving at the scene, dropped dead from heart disease. (The Week [Brisbane], 18 Feb 1898)
Initial reports mentioned seeing a woman and child on board – thought to be the captain’s wife and child – but there were no subsequent mentions in reports or at the inquest. Most, but not all, of the bodies were eventually washed up along the shore in the days following the wreckage.
During the inquest into the loss of the ship and crew, initial reports indicated that the ship was in poor condition with masts and timber rotten,”too much paint and putty” holding the ship together. Some witnesses said that even if life-saving equipment had been available, it wouldn’t have helped as the wreckage was too profuse, and that it was the wreckage that had killed the men, not drowning.
By the end of the inquest, though, the verdict that the fate of the ship was due to pure misadventure, and the owner of the ship was blameless despite previous claims that it hadn’t been adequately repaired following being run aground at Port Hacking two years beforehand.
The jury also noted: “We desire to add as a rider that life-saving apparatus should be placed at frequent intervals along the coast.” This may be seen as a precursor to the Australian Surf Lifesaving movement.
The residents of the district were so moved by the loss that they gathered the funds to erect a memorial. Originally the monument was located on a site donated by a local family near the beach on the banks of Flanagan’s Creek. There was a tall white marble column, but over time this has been seriously truncated. It had been pulled down by vandals in Christmas 1908, with portions of it thrown into the lagoon. In the 1950s the memorial was moved to its current location, and the local progress association has been lobbying for its third relocation as the memorial is knocked about by passing traffic.
Shipwrecks along the south coast weren’t unusual, and there were other ships lost or damaged on that particular day, but this monument is the only one along the south coast in the 1800s to be commemorated in a formal manner. Nearly a hundred years later, a further plaque was added, listing the names of the captain and crew, including their office and country of origin.
There is a comprehensive article in the Illawarra Historical Society Bulletin outlining the story behind the ship and its crew by Joseph Davis who notes: ‘What remains is the fact that there are probably few sadder ends than dying unknown and alone, far from home in a shipwreck where your body is never recovered.’ Davis played an integral part in confirming the names of the crew and ensuring they were added to the memorial.
A painting of the shipwreck by a local artist, Christine Hill, can be viewed here, along with her research into the history behind the Amy.
Have you stumbled across any interesting local history lately?
[Photo: Thirroul Beach]
Thank you for telling that great and terrible story. The fact that the people died mostly from being battered by the floating debris from the boat is particularly horrifying. May the memorial continue to stand, so that people such as yourself will seek out the details and pass on the history.
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Thank you, Carmel. It was one of those monuments which would be easy to miss, but the story behind it continues to resonate as demonstrated by locals doing their best to preserve the memory of those lost at sea. I appreciate your comments.
How sad! Were some of the people forming the human chain also killed?
Hi Ann, and yes it is a very sad story. From what I can gather, none of the attempted rescuers were killed, apart from the soldier on the shore who had a heart attack at the scene. It must have been terrifying to see the wreck and to try so hard to save the people washed ashore. Newspaper reports indicated that there were several almost-saved moments before the wild waves swept people away.