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Dunbar disaster: Camperdown Cemetery and a maritime tragedy

By Alec Smart

The Dunbar.  Painting: William Foster, 1853

The Dunbar. Painting: William Foster, 1853

In a corner of Camperdown Cemetery in Newtown, enclosed within a rectangular barrier of corroding iron railings, is a raised marble sarcophagus. Alongside stands the rusted remains of a ship’s anchor. This memorial pays tribute to the victims of two horrific shipwrecks – Dunbar (20 Aug 1857) and Catherine Adamson (24 Oct 1857).


The Dunbar disaster is one of Australia’s worst maritime tragedies due to the massive loss of life – 121 passengers and crew.

Beneath the plinth in the cemetery’s mass grave lie the remains of the bodies of 24 Dunbar victims, few of whom could be identified because they had either deteriorated in the surging sea and rocks, or been mauled by sharks. The remains of the other 97 victims were never recovered.

The Catherine Adamson cadavers were added nine weeks later after that vessel struck rocks below North Head and broke apart in rough seas with the loss of 21 lives.


Visitors to South Head may wonder why the Macquarie Lighthouse, Australia’s oldest and still-in-use lighthouse (its predecessor was constructed in 1818, replacing a 1791 beacon) is situated one mile (2.2km) to the south of South Head. Why wasn’t it sited at the actual entrance to Sydney Harbour?

Macquarie Lighthouse

Macquarie Lighthouse, built a mile south of the entrance to Sydney Harbour. Photo: Alec Smart


After these two horrific shipwrecks occurred in close proximity and two months apart, this glaring oversight forced the construction of the Hornby Lighthouse in 1858.

Previously, since 1816, a fire beacon (an iron basket filled with burning wood or coal and mounted on a tripod) was stationed below South Head, but it would have provided little illumination in fog and storms. Such was the case in 1857…

The Dunbar was named after shipowner and merchant Duncan Dunbar, who introduced the faster American-style clipper ships to Australia’s maritime trade routes in the middle of the 19th century. These sleek merchant vessels, the fastest sailing ships in international waters prior to the introduction of steamships, transported cargo and passengers back and forth between Britain and her colonies, including bringing a fresh wave of immigrants and speculators keen to pan the newly-discovered Australian goldfields.


(The Cutty Sark, which carried wool to England from NSW between 1885-93, is a prime example of a clipper and is now preserved as a museum in a drydock in Greenwich, London.)


On the night of 20 August 1857, the 63 passengers and 59 crew aboard the Dunbar must have been in high spirits, so close to their destination after 81 days at sea. The three-masted, copper-sheathed ship had departed Plymouth, southern England, on 31 May on its second voyage to Sydney.


Hornby Lighthouse

South Head showing the Hornby Lighthouse and the lighthouse keepers' cottages. Photo: Alec Smart

It is not known what caused Captain James Green to steer the 1,321 ton (1,198 metric tonnes) fully-laden Dunbar straight into the 50-metre-high cliffs, instead of rounding South Head.

Green was a veteran of eight visits to Sydney, one commanding the Dunbar, and he had previously captained two other vessels – the Vimeira and Waterloo convict transporters – which had involved negotiating them through Sydney Heads.


Able Seaman James Johnson, who was on watch duty aboard the Dunbar the night they approached Sydney, testified at the Inquiry into the likely causes of the tragic shipwreck.

He recalled that shortly before midnight, bearing north, with the occasional flash of the Macquarie Lighthouse beacon through the fog, beset by a rising gale and limited visibility, Captain Green estimated the Dunbar was due east of Sydney Heads.

Green changed course and bore westwards towards what he assumed was the entrance to Sydney Harbour.

The Dunbar clipper

The Dunbar clipper. Image: State Picture Library Victoria

Keeping the Macquarie light on the left side, Green ordered a lantern with blue tinted glass be lit, which then served the purpose of notifying the harbour pilot boat stationed at Camp Cove that they needed guidance into the settlement at Sydney Cove.

However, an urgent cry was heard from the second mate on the foredeck, “Breakers ahead!”


This warning alerted the crew that waves were seen pounding on rocks directly in front, and their only course of action was to immediately divert the vessel from imminent collision. Captain Green gave the order, “Port your helm!” – port being the left flank of a ship, so the response from the crew was to urgently steer the vessel to the starboard (right flank).


However, the situation was irrecoverable. Despite turning the vessel clockwise so it was side-on to the shoreline, they were driven broadside onto the cliff face by the surging tide and the vessel was catastrophically damaged a short distance south of The Gap.

(There was speculation that Captain Green mistook the indent of The Gap as the entrance to the harbour.)

The Gap

The Gap. Perhaps in the storm, Captain Green thought it Sydney Harbour's entrance. Photo: Alec Smart


The topmasts broke, the mizzen (rear) and main mast snapped, and they collapsed in a tangle of sails and rigging as waves broke over the decks. James Johnson was swept onto the poop deck (rearmost upper deck) where he clung to the midden chains.

While the vessel was still intact, he went below deck, made his way forwards towards the bow, and clambered up out of a cabin skylight and grasped the chains of the still intact foremast.

However, that soon gave way and Johnson was hurled onto the cliffs behind. Here he managed to climb up to a ledge three metres above, where he found refuge. (The following morning he clambered further up the cliff face and was eventually discovered 33 hours later, on 22 August 1857.)


The ship then rolled onto its side and began to break up in the pounding surf. The lifeboats dislodged and were splintered by the crashing waves, so those onboard (the majority below decks) had little chance of survival.

All 63 passengers of the Dunbar and 58 crew perished as they were overwhelmed by the force of the surging sea. 

Johnson was the only survivor of the shipwreck, which remains in the top ten of Australia’s worst maritime tragedies due to the high loss of life.

Entrance to Port Jackson'  (the Dunbar's masts poke out of the sea). Painting: Edmund Thomas 1857

 'Entrance to Port Jackson' (the Dunbar's masts poke out of the sea). Painting: Edmund Thomas 1857

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, thousands of spectators were drawn to view the remains of the Dunbar wreck, and witnessed the horror of mutilated bodies still being dashed against the cliff face around The Gap by the powerful waves.

Much of the cargo, personal belongings and broken timber from the doomed vessel washed into Sydney Harbour and was distributed along the shoreline around Middle Head. Clothing and foodstuffs were scattered on the beaches from Taylors Bay to Balmoral Beach and up Middle Harbour to The Spit. 17 bodies were recovered in this vicinity, many of them unrecognisable.


Over 20,000 people lined the streets of Sydney for the funeral procession, which consisted of seven hearses and four mourning coaches containing relatives of the deceased. In addition, the cortege was accompanied by a military band and a guard of honour provided by the NSW Mounted Police Unit, plus an estimated 100 carriages.

Every ship in Sydney Harbour flew their flags at half mast, church bells tolled across the city and banks and businesses closed as a mark of respect.


The service was conducted at Camperdown Cemetery in what was then called O’Connell Town (north Newtown), with the victims interred in a communal grave. Later, a memorial with one of the ship’s anchors, recovered in 1910, was established on the clifftop overlooking the wreck site.

Dunbar Memorial at The Gap

Dunbar Memorial at The Gap with an anchor recovered from the wreck. Photo: Alec Smart


Nine weeks after the Dunbar disaster, around midnight on 24 October 1857, the steamer Catherine Adamson was wrecked entering Sydney Harbour when she was blown by a sudden and heavy squall and struck the rocks below North Head with the loss of 21 lives. The remains of the victims were interred in the same mass grave among the Dunbar passengers and crew.


This second maritime tragedy, so close in proximity and time to the Dunbar, provoked an urgent demand for the installation of a lighthouse at South Head, which resulted in the construction of the 9.1 metre red-and-white striped Hornby Lighthouse the following year.

(It was erected on a platform that was previously the site of Australia’s first Signal Station, a flagstaff, founded February 1790, to which ships arriving to the new settlement of Sydney Cove communicated their arrival via flags and lanterns to the harbour authorities.)


Hornby became known as the ‘Lower Light’, to distinguish it from the ‘Upper Light’ of Macquarie Lighthouse, and because it was built below the cliffs of South Head.

The Hornby Lighthouse

The Hornby Lighthouse at South Head. Photo: Charles Bayliss c1880s

A memorabilia industry opened in the wake of the Dunbar disaster, selling items that washed ashore as well as furniture constructed from the timbers of the vessel.

From the 1950s, when SCUBA diving gear became popular, the Dunbar wreck below The Gap was raided many times by divers, looting submerged valuables, which were often dislodged by dynamite. In October 1991 the Dunbar wreck site, in approximately eight metres of water, was protected under the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976.


According to the Australian Maritime Museum, “in 1993, the Commonwealth Department of the Arts and Administrative Services declared an amnesty from prosecution to encourage people who had material from protected shipwrecks to come forward and declare that material. 

“As a result of this amnesty, John Gillies, an active sports diver in the 1950s and 60s, declared a collection of over 5,000 objects from the Dunbar wreck to the New South Wales Department of Planning. In August 1994 the department granted Mr Gillies a permit to dispose of his collection at auction under the condition that the collection be registered, photographed, remain in Australia and the new owner inform the department within 30 days of purchase. 

“Shortly afterwards, the Australian National Maritime Museum negotiated an out-of-auction settlement with Mr Gillies to prevent this important collection from falling into private hands and possibly being broken up. You can browse these various artefacts on our Collections website.”

The Dunbar grave in Camperdown

The Dunbar grave in Camperdown contains only 24 of the 121 victims of the disaster. Photo: Alec Smart

A Dunbar Memorial Service is held in Camperdown Cemetery annually in August to commemorate the long-lost victims of the tragedy.


Australian Maritime Museum have a collection of artefacts from the wreck, which can be

viewed on their Collections website.



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