Today in Transportation History – 1866: The Wreck of the Netherby

The full-rigged sailing ship Netherby, with 413 passengers and 49 crew members on board, ran aground and sank off an island coast in turbulent Australian waters. The shipwreck resulted in ambitious rescue efforts involving several means of transportation.

Netherby, a 944-ton vessel of the Black Ball Line, had been built in the British city of Sunderland in 1858 and was under charter to transport immigrants from England to the colony (and present-day Australian state) of Queensland. In 1859, Queensland separated from the colony of New South Wales to form a new colony. To help further populate Queensland, a system was established in which a large number of ships would bring immigrants to the new colony. Netherby was the 77th vessel recruited to assist in this large-scale effort.

This is why Netherby, under the command of Captain Jack Owens, was en route from London to the Queensland’s capital city of Brisbane in July 1866. Owens originally planned to take Netherby south of the island colony of Tasmania to get to Brisbane, but then decided to instead have the ship sail through the Bass Strait between Tasmania and Queensland. Netherby had already encountered considerably rough waters earlier in the voyage from England – just about all of the passengers were confined below decks for 14 consecutive days – and Owens took the alternate route through the Bass Strait in hopes that it would result in a calmer leg of the trip for everyone on board.

The Wreck of the Netherby
Artist Samuel Calvert sketch from the Illustrated Sydney News 16 August 1866 and Illustrated Melbourne Post 27 Aug 1866.

Unfortunately, this portion of the voyage became unexpectedly difficult after a low cloud blocked the sun and prevented Owens from using celestial navigation techniques to plot the ship’s position. Consequently, Netherby ran aground and sank near King Island in the Bass Strait. Everyone on board Netherby made their way onto the island safely, but there were limited provisions and no shelter readily available there. John Parry, the ship’s second mate, therefore led a small party of both crew members and passengers in search of assistance at a lighthouse elsewhere on the island. After reaching the lighthouse, they realized that there were still not enough supplies for everyone who had been sailing on Netherby.

Parry and three others then used a 23-foot whaleboat at the lighthouse to get to the Australian mainland. After they braved high winds and stormy waters to reach the mainland, Parry rode a horse 26 miles to the port city of Geelong for help. The warship HMVS Victoria, under the command of Captain William Henry Norman, soon sailed full speed ahead to King Island with urgently needed food, medicine, tents, and blankets. Another ship, Pharos, likewise made her way to King island to help rescue Netherby’s passengers and crew. Both vessels were able to retrieve all the survivors and bring them to the mainland. The survivors then traveled first by train and then via horse-drawn cabs to an immigration facility in Melbourne for additional assistance. As the Melbourne-base Age newspaper subsequently reported, “Too much praise cannot be awarded, not only to the Government but to every officer concerned, for the unwearied attention which has been devoted to providing for the comfort of the shipwrecked people, who appear fully to appreciate the kindness paid them.”

Featured image: Wreck of the Black Ball Liner Netherby on Kings’ Island
Engraver Frederick Grosse, Artist Oswald Cambell. Australian News For Home Readers 27 Aug 1866.

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