Tasmanian shipwreck legend
By David R. Griffiths

A formerl tourist information sign gave an intriguingly false story of the past

In the far south of Tasmania verbal history of the State’s third worst shipwreck, fostered by opposition to the convict system,  challenges official versions 180 years on.   The verbal story shows links to known facts, and some possibility exists that the official version is less than the whole truth.  As the story unravels, this is a fascinating example of how history transforms into legend.

A Southport local, descended from a convict forefather when asked about it, defended the truth of a tourist sign which described a massacre of convicts during the wreck of the George 111, saying "politicians were corrupt then and they are still corrupt today".

However it is also highly unlikely that during a shipwreck soldiers could have fired on convicts in the sea, let alone even load their weapons.

I originally exposed inaccuracies in the tourist information in an article in the region's Huon News 10/9/1998.  A few years later revisiting the area it became apparent to me that rather than being merely wrong, the local version was a verbal history artefact.   In more recent times the sign has been taken down and replaced with a new one as "an Australian Government funded initiative".   This sign refers to "public disquiet and allegations" in the aftermath of the wreck, but otherwise makes no reference to continuing skepticism with official versions of events among local people.  

The sign on the changing rooms at the beach had described local attractions and stated: "George 111 reef lies south of Southport Island and was named after the convict ship George 111 which was wrecked there whilst on her way to Port Arthur.  The convicts were released into the sea but were shot by the ship's officers.  A ten year old cabin boy was saved by the captain's wife who hid him under her dress.  He was the only convict who survived the wreck."

part of the report in the Hobart Courier, April 17 1835

By contrast The Hobart Courier of April 24, 1835 reports the results of the Board of Inquiry appointed by Governor Arthur to inquire into the wreck.  The report states that 81 convicts survived, and lists their names.

"It was naturally to be expected that on the striking of the ship, the prisoners would endeavour to extricate themselves from a situation which must have appeared to them one of imminent peril, and it appears they broke down a barricade of the prison with a view to get on deck.

"It was at this period that the sentries over the main hatchway, in obedience to the positive orders they then received, to keep the men below … fired - and painful as it is for us to report upon a subject of such a distressing nature, that, at such a crisis, man should feel himself compelled, through a sense of duty, to add to the desolation of the scene and fire upon his fellow creatures, yet it is gratifying to observe, from the concurring opinions of all the officers, according to the then existing state of circumstances, it was absolutely necessary that the prisoners should be kept down, for had they at that time got on deck, the long boat upon which alone the survivors could look with any hope of rescue, would have been rendered useless, and thus to all human appearances a much greater loss of life would have ensued."  The report concluded:  "The conduct of all was most praiseworthy and entirely free from blame of any description."

The Hobart Courier reported evidence from convicts including James Elliott: "I was in the hatchway several minutes before I could get up. The soldiers kept me down and threatened to fire; I heard two shots fired:  the first shot killed Robert Luker, and about three or four minutes after another shot was fired and I saw another man fall."

Following newspaper reports that four bodies had been washed ashore near the wreck with gunshot wounds and sabre cuts, the Coroner had 17 bodies disinterred. It was concluded that the wounds were caused by the rocks. These rumours, still being passed on, are most likely the basis for the verbal history on the Southport sign.

The gentleman I met said his forefather was one of the last convicts sent to the Colony, and arrived in the 1850's, which is nearly two decades after the wreck.

The second part of the legend relates to: "A ten year old cabin boy was saved by the captain's wife who hid him under her dress.  He was the only convict who survived the wreck." Forty Juveniles were among the 220 convicts, but the Captain's wife was not on board the ship. More than likely this part of the legend relates to a painting by H. E. Dawe, which was also produced as a lithograph, "The power of maternal affection when George the Forth convict ship was wrecked in April 1835 near Van Diemen's land" (Tasmania).  The painting depicted a soldier's wife, Mrs Martin, heroically described:

"She contrived to secure herself on the forechannel of the ship among the Laniards and although the sea ran mountains high with frost and rain the poor creature was exposed for 48 hours to the weather with two babes suckling at her bosoms and her elder child held between her knees.." 

In fact Mrs Martin endured only 8 hours on the wreck until the ship's long boat returned at 6am for its second load.  Not to mention that, although the date of the wreck is correct Dawe got the name of the ship wrong, calling it the "George the Forth" not "Third" (Forth presumably being a variation of spelling at the time).   Embellishment of the story occurred almost immediately. The powerful image of the woman protecting children has merged with the rumours of a massacre in the legend that survived.  Two years after the wreck in 1837, a lithograph was produced for sale to the public with melodrama, typical of the times.  (Image reproduced with permission Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW)

Convicts also built their own legend, no doubt passed on verbally inside prisons and after they were released.  The wreck was also politicised by opponents of transportation within the Colony, including possibly this writer's maternal Great Great Grandfather who was a founding member of the Anti-Transportation League, and in the development of civic institutions for northern

This shipwreck immediately took on a life beyond mere events, as a result of the aspirations, and resentments of those involved.   

Another artistic representation of the shipwreck was the painting by convict artist Knut Bull "The wreck of  George the Third".

Knut Bull  The wreck of 'George the Third'  1850, oil on canvas, 84.5 x 123 cm, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased with funds from the Nerissa Johnson Bequest 2001.
Reproduced with the permission of the National Gallery of Australia.http://artsearch.nga.gov.au/Detail.cfm?IRN=133128

This painting is also quite inaccurate.  It shows the hulk upright on the shore, whereas it lay on it's side, secured with anchors about George 111 rock a kilometre or more out to sea.  Bull was transported to Tasmania for forging banknotes, he had success as an artist after his release from prison.  It is possible he may have met some of the convict survivors, or heard stories about the shipwreck, but his painting was done 15 years after the event and is largely a product of his imagination.  This painting is on permanent display in the "Expatriates, Federation Landscapes & Symbolism gallery", (level 2)
at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

After my first visit to the area I wrote a story about the wreck, and in 1998 contacted G.A. Mawer, author of “Most Perfectly Safe” as part of my research.  Mawer had not heard the local story but commented: 

“It is hard to see how (they) could have got it so wrong. The convicts were not released but freed themselves.  Some were shot, but before release, and by the military, not ship’s officers.  I have never seen reference to a cabin boy, but Major Ryan had his 6 year old son with him.  Mrs. Martin was not the Captain’s wife, who if he had one, was not aboard.  How could the cabin boy be a convict?  There were 81 convict survivors."

Mawer concluded:  "I suspect it is a classic example of the distortions of oral history.”

Southport, Tasmania

Having recently visited the area again I sought out a local opinion, finding the local identity who averred to the truth of the tourist sign, and also sought out local historians.  Subsequently I wrote another story for the Huon News on the significance of the oral history

Bruce Poulson  researched the history of the area between Southport and Recherche Bay. He commented: "I have read a dozen or so accounts of the wreck and aftermath and the topic has come up a couple of times in interviews with old-timers (although there are only six over-90 left from the original families).

"The older sign at Southport Beach was erected either by the old Esperance Council or the State Government during a minor historical revival about the time of the commemoration of D'Entrecasteaux's visits. "The new plaque was put there last year (1999) as part of "The Huon Trail" tourism initiative, a joint project between the Huon Kingborough Tourism Association and the two Councils (Huon and Kingborough).   The sign near the George 111 monument itself at Southport Bluff belongs to the TPWS (Tas. Parks and Wildlife Service). It is the best of the three and gives a balanced report on the disaster mostly from original sources.

"There have always existed two views ... right from day one, so to speak: (1) those who believed that unnecessary killings had occurred and (2) those who accepted the Coroner's findings, even though the inquest, when it adjourned to Southport, was probably held too late to tell whether the disinterred bodies contained gunshot etc.  One old timer, still alive, insists that the grave-diggers told his father of foul play. This view has been the majority one in this largely ex-convict district for generations."   (Mr. Poulson has since passed away.)

The new sign

As the map shows, the sign is located near the Southport pier, red marker "you are here", and the Goerge III monument at Southport bluff is relatively inaccessible across the bay.  The Ida Bay Railway was constructed to transport limestone to ships, now a privately owned tourist venture, will take you part of the way.  Walkers can use it in peak season when it does four trips a day, as the walk takes three hours return.  However as at May 2018 the monument is closed to the public for conservation reasons.

Ida Bay Railway, driver talking to passengers

Looking over the facts and various opinions, despite the fact that it would be easy to reject the legend as erroneous, which was my first reaction,  there is possibly a level of insincerity in the official version at least with the conclusion of the Inquiry:  "the conduct of all was.. entirely free from blame of any description"
.    During the time before it was decided to release the convicts, the lower decks flooded leading to loss of life; other convicts succumbed no doubt due to the poor diet; and inadequate clothing.  Old oatmeal had been loaded on the ship as a cost cutting measure, clothing was thin and only overcrowded conditions would have protected the convicts from the chill of the Southern Ocean in Autumn.  Poor winds had delayed the ship and many convicts were suffering from scurvy which resulted in the ship's doctor urging the Captain to take a shortcut through the D'Entrecasteaux Channel rather than the seaward side of Bruny Island, the usual approach to Hobart.   And the infirmary flooded in the wreck killing the sick and dying, but 81 convicts, barely more than a third of those embarked, did survive. 

This much at least is true, that the possibility of a "massacre" tags onto rumours of the time, and the "cabin boy" connects with the lithograph of Dawes' painting ("..
her elder child held between her knees..")

Two major well researched sources on the wreck are "The Convict Ships" by Charles Bateson (1959), and "Most Perfectly Safe" by G. A. Mawer (1997). Bateson gives as full a description of the events of the wreck as possible, Mawer adds valuable circumstances both before during and after the voyage, which give a context into events.

While this writer can take some satisfaction in having brought these matters to notice, and the new sign in many ways is quite an improvement, it glosses over the legend and is itself not entirely accurate.  

Some errors in the new sign include: "Rather than risk the wild weather likely to be encountered in Storm Bay, the captain decided to take the more protected route to Hobart up the D'Entrecasteaux Channel.  The result of this fateful decision was that the ship ran aground on a reef near Southport  Island late at night."

"The shorter route had been discussed [by the ship's officers] and urged by Dr. Wyse.."  ("Most perfectly safe" by G.A. Mawer,  page 62)  

The ship did not run aground on a reef but hit a submerged rock in an area of shallow water not on the Captain's charts.

The sign states:  "Most of the convicts in their sickbeds were drowned, and the guards refused to let any of the others on deck for fear that they would rush the longboat."

The Hobart Town Courier, Friday 17 April 1835, quotes Dr. Wyse "I kept the prisoners below until the boat could be launched,  for if I had not, I do not think a soul would have been saved."   Why does the new sign remove responsibility for this decision from those in charge and place it with the guards?   And why does it place it out of sequence, implying that the convicts drowned before the decision to keep them below rather than afterwards and as a result of it?

In fact it appears the ship's doctor was responsible for the wreck both in going outside his area of knowledge and responsibility in urging the course the Captain should take, and by his admission keeping the prisoners below while the long boat was being launched, a decision however well intended that caused great loss of life as the lower decks flooded.   

The new sign reads:  "Shots were fired, and two convicts were supposedly killed, though there were conflicting accounts in the aftermath of the disaster."  The comment that the convicts were "supposedly killed" is a little unkind.  Perhaps "allegedly" would be a better description.   

According to Mawer's book
the sequence was that a shot was fired down the hatch by a soldier at the orders of Corporal Deverell, allegedly only to intimidate the convicts, who were at the time attempting to escape.

Corporal Deverell told the Inquiry he did not believe anyone had been hit.  Prisoners testified otherwise, James Elliot said that Robert Luker was shot, and James McKay said the second shot a few minutes later hit William Yates.  Then a huge wave poured through the main hatchway, Corporal Deverell ordered the guards to withdraw, and according to Mawer many convicts drowned at this point.  ("Most Perfectly Safe" page 65.)

Writing history is not easy, it requires painstaking research, and it is always best to go to the original sources.  There is a considerable body of material to go through and we do not wish to be too unkind to the authors of the new tourist information sign.

However it appears the divide between those on the side of authority, and those against, is alive and well.  

Not many people can be seen out and about at Southport,   Two local people asked about it, were dismissive of the new version.

Part of the new sign that deals with the George III wreck story


Copyright © David R. Griffiths 2001, 2015, 2018

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