WATERY GRAVE: The Catterthun wreck is a popular dive site.
WATERY GRAVE: The Catterthun wreck is a popular dive site.

History behind SS Catterthun heirloom surfaces

AN HISTORIC clock which has surfaced in a Coffs Harbour home may add the final chapter to a remarkable tale of shipwreck off the Mid North Coast, 120 years ago.

Coffs local Geoff Simpson says he is amazed by the story that rests with the family heirloom. It turns out the gold-faced timber souvenir that sits on his dresser was presented to British diver William May who, with the assistance of his countryman Arthur Briggs, recovered gold from the shipwreck of the SS Catterthun.

WRECK: The SS Catterthun was a 19th century cargo and passenger ship that sank with considerable loss of life in 1895.
WRECK: The SS Catterthun was a 19th century cargo and passenger ship that sank with considerable loss of life in 1895. Contributed

The clocks were presented to the divers by English Dive Equipment Company, C.E Heinke, which manufactured specially made dive helmets and equipment for the world- record dive to depths of 50 metres.

Geoff's research into the clock has prompted a worldwide search to find the clock that was presented to Briggs.

"I'm amazed at how big this whole thing has become, the UK Historical Divers Society has emailed me about the clock and their thinking is the other clock is in England somewhere," Geoff said.

The clock has been passed down the Simpson family line, as Geoff's great, great aunt Therese May (nee) Simpson married the diver William May.

"It's a family heirloom and may stay that way but personally, to me, it doesn't carry monetary or sentimental value so I'd prefer to see it on display somewhere.

"I have contacted the Australian National Maritime Museum and I'm waiting to hear back."

SS CATTERTHUN

  • Owned by the Eastern and Australian Steamship Company.
  • Built by William Doxford & Sons, Sunderland, England.
  • Launched in April, 1881, and wrecked on August 8 near Seal Rocks in 1895.
  • Length: 302ft (92.13m), Beam: 35ft (10.80m), Propulsion: 250hp (186kW) compound steam engine, schooner-rigged sail. The ship arrived in Australia in August, 1881, having travelled via Suez, Singapore, China, and New Guinea under the command of Captain J.Miller.
  • For several years, it plied between Australia and China, taking cargoes of gold to China and returning with tea.
The clock presented to William May by English diving company C.E Heinke and Co. 
The plaque reads:
The clock presented to William May by English diving company C.E Heinke and Co. The plaque reads: "In commemoration of the recovery of the gold from the wreck SS. Catterthun at the record depth of 165-feet - 1896." Gemima Harvey

THE HISTORY BEHIND THE SS CATTERTHUN SHIPWRECK 

ON THAT fateful night, SS Catterthun, the "pride of the Australian steamship fleet", encountered a roaring gale.

The great maritime tragedy, that saw 55 lives lost, happened on August 8, 1895, shortly after midnight.

History tells us that the 19th century steam engine, which left Sydney bound for Hong Kong, was engulfed in a storm near the Port Stephens (Fingal Head) Lighthouse.

Author Chris Craig, who wrote a book on the Catterthun shipwreck, said onboard the 35-foot ship were mainly European and Chinese citizens and a bounty of gold, believed to be 8000 to 9000 British gold sovereigns.

"In today's terms that amount of gold sovereigns would have carried a value of around $A3.4 million," Chris said.

"At that point the Catterthun was the pride of the fleet - it was the first ship in the country with electricity and refrigeration."

In dangerous waters, the steamer struck trouble off Seal Rocks.

"Survivors would later tell that the ship was hit by 50-foot high waves and at one point a staircase was ripped from the decks," he said.

"The ship went down a trough in a wave and struck a rock, basically a reef that wasn't mapped, then on the next trough a hole was torn in the backside of the vessel.

"Taking on water, the Catterthun went out to sea and then attempted to reach nearby Boat Beach before it sank and only one lifeboat was successfully launched."

He said the captain, Neil Shannon, and several crew members were either swept from the decks or went down with the ship.

It took just 20 minutes for the Catterthun to sink in about 55-metres of water, where it remains today as a popular dive site.

The immediate rescue effort was hindered by conditions, but a local Greek sailor on a yacht ultimately helped 26 survivors in a lifeboat safely to shore.

Contracted for the salvage, Briggs and May became trailblazers in the diving world.

They learned about the bends along the way, which during the 1890s was virtually unstudied as well as unavoidable.

Their salvage recovered all but about 1000 pieces of gold in what was then the world's deepest dive of its time.

Describing how the salvage made rich men of Briggs and May, Chris said there was scuttlebutt after the salvage of an Englishman flashing a gold sovereign at Sydney Harbour.