At 3.30 pm on Monday 8 August 1859 the news of the colony of South Australia’s worst maritime disaster reached Adelaide from Mount Gambier. Less than two years after her maiden voyage from Glasgow, on 6 August 1859 the iron-hulled steamship Admella of 209 net tons, under command of an experienced Captain Hugh McEwan, and carrying a complement of 84 passengers and 29 crew, struck a then uncharted reef, now known as Carpenters Reef, situated about 30 km north-west of Cape Northumberland and 4 km north-west of Cape Banks. There were only 25 survivors, rescued eight days after the ship struck. A total of 89 lives were lost, including many women and children, and one of the rescuers.
Within 15 minutes of hitting the reef, the Admella had broken into three sections. For those on board it was the beginning of a horrific week, in mid-winter, at the mercy of the elements, as they clung to the wreck with pounding surf washing over them, or slipped to their death from cold and exhaustion. They could see the shore but could not reach it Several tried and were either drowned or washed out to sea. They had no water and the captain share out what little food they could retrieve from the submerged lockers.
On the second day, two seamen made it to shore on a makeshift raft and walked all night through scrub and swamp, about 20 miles, to the Cape Northumberland lighthouse to raise the alarm.
A comprehensive book about the SS Admella, and those associated with it, including some early history of colonial and coastal shipping – Reef of Despair: The wreck of the SS Admella – is due to be published soon. To secure an early signed copy, email: [email protected].