The wreck of the Loch Ard is one of Victoria’s most famous and dramatic shipwreck tales. The iron clipper crashed into Mutton Bird Island on a misty winter morning in 1878, leaving only two young people alive, while the ship, and all other passengers and crew perished. This story has fascinated visitors to Victoria’s Shipwreck Coast for many years. The cargo aboard the ship is a lesser known tale, and one that also speaks to fragility and endurance.
The Loch Ard was nearing the end of a journey from Gravesend in England. The passengers had long retired to bed, while Captain George Gibb remained on deck all night. Fog and faulty instruments had led him to believe the ship was still far off the Victorian coast until mists lifted to reveal rugged cliffs dangerously close. The crew attempted to save the ship, but it was too late and the Loch Ard was dragged onto a reef and wrecked.
From the collection of the State Library of Victoria
Tom Pearce was an 19 year old ship's apprentice and the only crew member to survive the wreck. Tossed overboard by heavy seas and then surfacing under an upturned lifeboat, Tom struggled to reach a tiny beach. On the sand he was able to revive himself with food and spirits from the ship that had also been thrown onto the shore.
The Loch Ard was not his first shipwreck. Three years earlier when he was only 15, he had been aboard the ill-fated Eliza Ramsden. The wreck of the Loch Ard was to prove far more tragic.
From the collection of the State Library of Victoria
Eva Carmichael was also 19. She was a first-class passenger travelling with her large and wealthy family to Sydney where her father was to take up a medical practice. Eva was described by some as delicate, but she proved capable of great endurance as the only surviving Loch Ard passenger.
From the Collection of the State Library of Victoria
As the masts of the Loch Ard crashed to the deck, Eva was swept into the sea, clinging first to a chicken coop and then a spar. She floated for hours wearing only a thin nightdress. Eventually carried into a gorge, she cried out to a figure she could see on the beach. Tom responded immediately to Eva's cry and dived in, and after a long struggle in the strong swell, brought her to the shore. They found a cave where Eva could rest while Tom searched the beach for other survivors. He found none – returning only with a case of brandy for them to drink. He then scaled the sheer cliffs of the gorge to search for help, finally finding it at Glenample Homestead.
From the Collection of Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum and Village
Amidst the upheaval and carnage of the wreck, delicate objects from the ship started to land on the beach at what is now Loch Ard Gorge.
Days after the event a life-size, elaborately glazed, ceramic peacock washed up on the beach, unharmed. Unlike Tom and Eva, it was snugly packed in a crate, and survives to this day in the Flagstaff Maritime Museum and Village in Warrnambool.
The peacock, made at Minton potteries, is the most famous item recovered from Loch Ard, but the cargo was rich and varied, valued at £53,700. Some of it was washed up on the beach at Loch Ard Gorge, but most was left on the ship until it was retrieved by divers and archaeologists 100 years later.
Amongst the survivors were angels and dragons. These mythological creatures were gas light fittings ordered by Brooks, Robinson and Co., glass, oil and colour merchants of Elizabeth Street in Melbourne, who specialised in articles and goods for beautifying the home.
These delicate trinket boxes were found in great numbers on the wreck of the Loch Ard. Originally brightly coloured and gilded, they are fairings, given as prizes at English county fairs. Mass produced in German porcelain factories for an English market, they were meant to be collected and treasured as a souvenir of a day out at the fair.
Destined for a dining room, these fragile etched glass bottles were carefully packed to withstand international travel, and so also survived shipwreck. They are the fragments of a dinner cruet set, designed to hold the condiments that bring spice to a meal. The bottles would sit in an elaborately scrolled metal salver displayed on the sideboard. This would then be carried around the table for each dining guest to serve themselves, ensuring their salads were dressed as freshly as possible. Flavoured vinegars: tarragon, cucumber, raspberry, mint, as well as anchovy, or elderberry sauces would have filled these bottles. The jar is a caster for sugar or pepper.
Glass tumblers for whiskey, soda, lemonade or iced tea were shipped from Europe on the Loch Ard.
By the late 19th century, tea was a ritual enjoyed by all classes of British society. Ladies in floating teagowns served afternoon tea from dainty porcelain or sterling silver, while farmers enjoyed pork pies or scotch eggs with their strong brew, having ‘meat teas’ at the end of the day. This teapot was made by Thomas Otley & Sons, in Sheffield, and packed for a trip to Australia. It is electroplated nickel silver, which can be burnished to shine like silver, but tarnishes with age.
Pewter tankards conjure images of sailors drinking in taverns or onboard ships. It was in such tankards that “king’s shillings” were hidden, to trick men into service on the sea. A pewter tankard was sturdy and with their wide, heavy base, stayed upright on a rough sea. It is unclear whether these were cargo or belonged to the ill-fated crew of the Loch Ard.
This fox is an enigma. It is made from ceramic, but its function is elusive. It is the only one of its kind that was retrieved from the cargo of the Loch Ard .
While Victorians of the 1870s hoped desperately for Tom and Eva to marry, it wasn’t to be. They never saw each other again, although a story persists that Eva later cared for Tom after a shipwreck off the coast of Ireland….. but this is only rumour.
Eva's family were buried on the cliff above Loch Ard Gorge, and she returned to Ireland. Some years later, she married a wealthy man. She lived a long and prosperous life, though she remained haunted by memories of the wreck that took her family.
When Tom died, aged 49, he had been a ship's captain for many years, holding a post with the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company. He survived at least one more shipwreck before retirement, but lost his son, Thomas in the wreck of the Loch Vennacher.
Much of the cargo of the Loch Ard endures to this day. Having been excavated and subject to conservation treatments to ensure an even longer life, many of these artefacts are now displayed in museum showcases, or lie carefully packed and cushioned in climate controlled storerooms.
The remains of the Loch Ard lie in the rough waters of Victoria's Shipwreck Coast.
Portraits of Tom and Eva, and the image of the rescue are from the Collection of the State Library of Victoria. The Minton Peacock is in the collection of Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum and Village in Warrnambool. Artefact images by Grace Blake and Jane Mitchell.