Saturday, February 25, 2012

The wreck of the Empire Gladstone

Although the 1950 grounding of a freighter on the far south coast of NSW offered an irresistible opportunity for some local residents, others found themselves in the unenviable position of wondering if they would ever get to see their loved ones again.

It was while heading along the NSW coastline between Eden and Pambula on the evening of September 5, 1950 that the ship ran aground on Toalla Point (also known locally as Haystack Rock). Although stuck fast and badly holed, the Captain and crew remained on board for several days until heavy seas began to take their toll. With twenty-foot waves battering the stricken vessel, Captain John Lennie ordered the 31 Brits and Scots, and three Australians to abandon ship and head for the nearby port of Merimbula.

Built in Sunderland, England, in 1946, the 7,090 ton steel freighter Empire Gladstone had only been operating in Australian waters for six months when she departed Whyalla (SA) for Sydney (NSW) on what was to be her last voyage. Owned by the British Government, the vessel was chartered by Blane’s Steam Ship Company and re-chartered by the Adelaide Steam Ship Company at the time of the fateful trip.

The Empire Gladstone , which ran aground on Haystack Rock, between Eden & Pambula, in September 1950.

Captain Lennie, before taking his leave for the grounded freighter, walked to the rail of the ship and tossed his gold-braided cap into the ocean, which, according to crew reports, indicated that he was finished with the sea. The voyage was to have been his last before retiring from his thirty-plus year maritime career.

Although there was little hope of saving the stricken vessel, confidence was held that the cargo could be retrieved. After a syndicate, headed by Merimbula publican Ben Buckland, purchased the salvage rights for £1250, local trawler operators swung into action in an attempt to recover the shipment, which was valued at around £750,000.

The 7,090 ton freighter Empire Gladstone aground on Haystack Rock.

Within days, well-known local fisherman Mr. H. Bell had commenced carting car bodies, worth up to £200 each, from the wreck to Merimbula wharf in his trawler Lismore Pride. Plying to and from the wreck day and night, Mr. Bell earned himself £15 for each six mile run from the wreck, carrying three car bodies at a time.

At a time when the average weekly male wage was around £23, other local boat owners quickly followed suit, offering up their services to retrieve the cargo. Those with larger vessels were able to make up to £250 each for their efforts. Car bodies soon choked the small township of Merimbula, filling several vacant blocks, laying all over the small wharf and littering the decks of every available fishing boat.

Just some of the car bodies salvaged off the grounded freighter Empire Gladstone.

Eventually, nine fishing boats spent two and a half days and two nights lifting 150 Chevrolet, Vanguard, Holden and Dodge car bodies along with some other items from the wreck, but the Empire Gladstone and her cargo of iron ore were eventually given over to the mercy of the ocean.

The grounded Empire Gladstone was something of a financial god send to the local fishing community.

After successfully transporting all of the car bodies, boat owners turned their attention to ferrying sightseers out to the wreck. Averaging two trips an hour with six passengers on board at 2/- a head, the trawler operators were able to each add about £8 a day to their takings as a result of the grounding.

Hayes & Kidd Pty Ltd preparing to load car bodies from the grounded Empire Gladstone. Although the cargo of iron ore was lost, 150 vehicle bodies were salvaged by local trawler operators.

The salvage crew, consisting of leader and syndicate member Ben Buckland, Reg Warn, Allan (“Bubby”) George and an unnamed Melbourne man, were each paid £3/3/- a day for their part in the operations, but it was not all plain sailing for the group. Although calm weather had given every indication of a successful recovery operation, a stiff north-easter’ and rising seas suddenly saw the party trapped on board the wreck for more than 20 hours with no food or fresh water. Although the shoreline was well within sight, the men had no way to safely reach it.

Although initially enjoying calm weather, rising seas eventually saw the salvage crew trapped on board the stricken Empire Gladstone for more than twenty hours.

Local residents, fearing for the well-being of the stranded four, fired red signal flares, but concerns increased when no answer was seen. However, just as a group were preparing to go out to the wreck to check on their welfare, the salvage party’s launch was seen making for shore in turbulent seas. After a rough five-mile trip, one of the men, reportedly so relieved to be back on dry land, got down his knees, kissed the ground and said “I’ll never leave you again!”

According to newspaper accounts of the time, salvage crew leader Mr. Buckland said “We had a sleepless night huddled in the wreck’s forepeak.

“It would have been madness to try to get ashore in the sea that was running last night.

“We saw the flares go up from the coast and tried to reply but in the spray and water and wind we couldn’t get our flares away properly.”

One of the Empire Gladstone’s life boats ashore at Haycock.

There was no loss of life as a result of the grounding of the Empire Gladstone, and although one crew member had to be hospitalised for treatment, that was for a condition unrelated to the incident. Following a Marine Court of Inquiry, Captain Lennie’s Master’s certificate was suspended for six months.

The wreck of the Empire Gladstone is a popular dive spot today.

Map showing the approximate location og the Empire Gladstone wreck.

Please note - all images used in this blog post on the Empire Gladstone remain under © & must not be reproduced without the express permission of the copyright owners.

© Angela George.

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