Sunday, 15 April 2012

The Pearl Disaster: Brisbane's forgotten shipping tragedy...

 
The Pearl at her mooring in February 1896 (State Library of Qld)
As you're likely aware, today, the 15th of April 2012, is the 100th Anniversary of the Titanic Disaster.  So far, The Courier Mail has run full colour lift-outs in their Saturday edition two weekends in a row, tonight both Channel Seven & SBS are screening Titanic documentaries, & on Wednesday night Channel Seven will screen another tele-drama based on the Titanic sinking - it's clear that Australians are still equally fascinated & appalled by the events that took place that fateful night a century ago.  However, very few residents of Brisbane are aware of an event that unfolded 116 years ago, right here in Brisbane, the anniversary of which has only just passed.  Whilst the scale of the disaster paled in comparison to that of the Titanic, the fall-out from the Brisbane tragedy sent reverberations around the world.

The sorry story began at 4am on Monday the 6th of February 1893.  After torrential rains had lashed the south east of Queensland, Brisbane was in the grip of a flood...however, where other floods had come & gone at this time of year, this particular flood was greater & more ferocious than any other Brisbane had experienced before - in time, history would record the event as the Great Flood of 1893, a natural disaster we still talk about in hushed tones to this day.  For days, the Brisbane River lay swollen through the heart of the city, spilling out into the lower-lying areas of the greater Brisbane region & flushing all manner of flotsam & jetsam into Moreton Bay.  However, on Sunday the 5th of February a major flood surge began to move down the winding river from its headwaters, destroying everything in its path.  The Indooroopilly Railway Bridge, which had barely survived the previous severe flood in 1890, was first to feel the tremendous power of the surge.  A fully-laden steam train was hurriedly parked on the bridge in a vain attempt to weigh the structure down & pin it to the riverbank, however the effort was for naught - at 5:45am, with a deafening crack & roar heard 1½ kilometres away, 25 metres of the bridge's 50 metre central span sheered away, plunging into the raging torrent below.   The surviving sections of the bridge held out valiantly against the continued onslaught until 1pm, when another deafening boom sounded & the remainder of the central span was torn free by the continually rising waters.

Further downstream, the Victoria Bridge linking North & South Brisbane was beginning to weather the same surge.  Residents of Brisbane lined both sides of the river & watched on in amazement as the waters rose to the level of the bridge deck, & debris smashed against the structure's side.  During the night, two large punts which had broken away from their moorings upstream, slammed into the superstructure & became jammed, adding to the steadily increasing volume of building materials & vegetation banked against the bridge.  Astonishingly, Victoria Bridge appeared to defy the flood's best destructive efforts throughout the night...until 4am the next morning, when the still-present crowd played witness to the sheer brute force of nature in stunned silence, as the bridge finally buckled under the weight of water & wreckage.  According to The Queenslander on the 11th of February 1893, "There was one loud crash, which shook the very earth, and made the surrounding buildings shake to their foundations; one convulsive heave, and the wrecked portion went down the river.  Soon other pieces followed it, until before half an hour had elapsed fully one-half of the bridge had disappeared."  The main lifeline between the two banks of the Brisbane River was now completely severed, sharing a similar fate with the only other Brisbane River crossing at Indooroopilly which had failed the day before - Brisbane had cruelly been plunged back into the dark ages of the City's early era, where water-craft were the only means of transportation between North & South.

Jump forward three years to 1896, & the three year anniversary of Victoria Bridge's destruction.  By this time, construction of the second permanent Victoria Bridge was well under way - proceeding the 1893 Bridge collapse, a temporary (& rickety) wooden bridge had been hastily constructed from the northern bank, adjoining the surviving southern section in the centre of the river.  However, given the time of the year, Brisbane was again due for a flood.  By Wednesday the 12th of February, the Brisbane River was swollen again & flowing heavily, & the piles in the piers of the temporary bridge section came under immediate treat from floating debris.  By 5:45am the next morning, over 2 acres of floating debris had backed up behind the bridge, & 5 piles shattered under the weight with an ear-piercing crack, damage that would see the temporary section sag nearly a metre.  All traffic across the bridge was immediately halted, throwing Brisbane's morning commute into chaos.  Immediately, local powers scrambled to press into service every suitable vessel they could find - on this day, ferries would again become the only link between the North & South.  Of the four vessels employed, one was the Pearl, a small steamship.

At 5pm in the afternoon, the Victoria Bridge still being closed, the working class of Brisbane made their way down to Queen's Wharf near the front of the now old Commissariat Stores...the Pearl lay alongside waiting for her fares.  To this day, the exact number of passengers who boarded the vessel that fateful afternoon is open to debate, however the agreeable complement sits between approximately 70-80.  At 5:05pm, the Pearl pulled away from the wharf, the Normanby & Government Steamer Lucinda being anchored in her path further out into the stream.  Throughout the day, the Pearl had passed between the two ships on a number of occasions in an attempt to placate passengers' concerns that the vessel was taking a longer route between the riverbanks...a travel path that had already seen the Pearl clip the stern of the Normanby on one occasion & ride over the anchor cable of the Lucinda on another.  On the 5pm run, the Pearl attempted again to run between the two vessels, however her earlier attempts & near misses served to seal her fate - on nearly clipping the stern of the Normanby again, the engines of the Pearl were called to a stop, at which time an eddy of flood water between the vessels shunted the Pearl backwards.  Before the engines could be started again to adequately get the Pearl underway, the surge slammed the vessel down on the anchor line of the Lucinda, effectively cleaving the vessel in two.

 

Men, women & children slid across the deck as the ship disappeared beneath the surging waters in less than 30 seconds.  Some luckily struck on the Lucinda's anchor chain and climbed upwards to safety...further passengers were able to grab lifelines immediately thrown by the crew of the Lucinda who were on watch...however, many who were on board the Pearl ended up in the swollen river & found themselves being flushed downstream at a rapid rate.  It was at this point that some of the most harrowing stories emerge...

James Wilson & his wife boarded the Pearl & were thrown into the water - James attempted to hold his wife above water while another lady clung to him, causing him to lose his grip & his wife was washed away to her death.  On being saved, he was transferred to a boarding house where he came in contact with the 4 young children of another woman who had perished in the disaster - he immediately consented to care for them, even in his grief & loss.  Three young brothers named O'Sullivan, aged 14, 11 & 9, were swept into the river - the 14 year old managed to snag & climb up the Lucinda's anchor chain, while his 11 year old brother hung on to a man's coat & was barely saved...however, the oldest brother watched from the Lucinda's stern as the youngest screamed "Mumma, Mumma," & disappeared beneath the water - his little, broken body was recovered near Breakfast Creek a week later.  Archibald McCorkingdale, past Councillor of Caboolture Shire, was washed into the river with a friend - on entering the water, he shouted, "Goodbye, I cannot swim.  Remember me to my wife," before slipping under the water...his body was never recovered.  21 year old Henry Archibald Jarman grabbed a lifebouy as he slipped off the deck into the water, but handed it to his Aunt, stating, "Here, you take this and save yourself, I'll be alright"...he was then washed away & drowned.  Of those who were lost, the saga continued...

In the days proceeding the wreck, search crews located clothing washed up on beaches at Sandgate, the entirety of which was sent back to Brisbane in the hope it may be identified.  Three days after the disaster, Mr Oxenham who was employed as the telegraph-master at Redcliffe, spied a body floating alongside the Redcliffe Jetty & immediately notified the Police.  The body was salvaged & taken to the Redcliffe Police Station, & in turn was transferred to North Pine & then on to Brisbane - on the post-mortem examination, the body was identified as that of a 29 year old woman who had been aboard the Pearl.  Ten days later, on the 26th of February, further word was received from Bribie Island where another body had been located on the shore - having been transferred to the local morgue, a broach was found on the body which in turn was identified by a friend at the Inquest...the woman, who possessed no other family in Brisbane aside from her sister, was also identified as one of the Pearl's passengers.  At a later stage again, an unidentifiable body was found on the shores of St Helena Island - it was postulated that this may have also been one of the missing souls from the Pearl sinking.

However, the greatest blow to Brisbane from the tragedy concerned the Morren family.  On the morning of the 13th of February, Hugh Morren & his eldest son & daughter were in mourning - their wife & mother had passed away the day before in the Brisbane General Hospital as a result of a protracted illness.  The father & children had made the journey to Brisbane from their home at Manly, where six younger children lay in waiting, to bury their loved one at Toowong Cemetery.  On the return from the funeral, all three boarded the fateful Pearl...five minutes later, their fortunes would again be parted.  The daughter was the first to be rescued from the river - thinking that both her father & brother had perished, she made her way to the Melbourne Street Railway Station to head back to her siblings, weeping heavily on the platform as she waited for the train amongst the other commuters.  Having boarded the train, she sat in stunned silence as her heart-broken brother boarded the carriage at the next station - at once, the two siblings consoled one another on the train ride home, however their father Hugh was not so luck...he perished amongst the others, on the day of his wife's funeral, & was buried alongside her four days later.  Ultimately, the Morren children were collected & sent to an orphanage at Sandgate, until Queen Victoria received word of the tragedy in England - not only did she send her condolences regarding the tragedy, but an immediate fund was set up in London to aid the Morren children, who in turn were transferred to England to be cared for.

The Pearl Disaster crippled the growing hub of Brisbane, & the story was passed amongst its residents for years...however, with no visible reminder of the tragedy, Brisbane has all but forgotten.  Whilst the Titanic drama plays out over the coming days, for those of you catching ferries across the river from Brisbane to Southbank after work, stop & think - 116 years ago, many souls walked the same path you have to the riverbank...however 29 of them never made it home...

3 comments:

  1. A truly fascinating piece.
    Granted that the two Shipping Incidents, the Titanic and the Pearl in many ways do not compare, the effect on the populace of the day, is comparable.

    There should have been a monument errected to the 29 souls lost in this incident, it is shameful that such events are allowed to pass unnoticed into the dust of time, in favour of events that are not part of the history of this country or region.

    And on a personal note, I will not walk Southbank and look at it the same way again

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  2. I have lived in Brisbane all of my 40 years and I have never heard the story of the Pearl. To be honest I am shocked I never knew of this. I agree with Rodger above I think there should be some sort of memorial.

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  3. my grandfather William Morren was sent to Stourbridge England

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