Real Aussie stories: The tragic 1870 tale of the clipper ship Walter Hood

Jul 04, 2020
The site of the infamous Walter Hood wreckage today. Source: Exploria

As we struggle in the grips of the pandemic-induced isolation in the relative comfort of our homes, it is stories like the Walter Hood, shipwrecked 150 years ago on the New South Wales south coast that provide a window into the trials our colonial ancestors endured. Wrecked during a huge storm in 1870, survivors were left clinging to the remains of a ship surrounded by treacherous oceans, miles of coastal waterways walled by endless forest.

To many, the area surrounding Wreck Bay is still isolated, let alone to the crew of the Walter Hood. Their story is not just of a shipwreck, but a tale of bare-foot survival over six days, coupled with treasure, courage, heroes and desperation in all its glory. This long and dangerous journey was one that changed Australia forever, forging our national identity and uncrushable spirit.

“The story around here is that on a stormy night you can still hear the howls from the poor ship’s dog,” Kevin Millar, president of the local residents’ group, said.

150 years since Walter Hood wreck
The Walter Hood clipper was badly damaged in a storm. Source: Exploria

The wooden clipper ship, Walter Hood, was the largest sailing vessel ever built in the famous Aberdeen boat yards of Scotland. Completed in 1852 expressly for the Australian-China trade, the vessel immediately set the speed record books alight with an 80-day trip from London to Sydney. For 17 years it was a common sight in the docks of Sydney Cove, carrying livelihoods back and forth between England and the fledgling colony.

The Walter Hood left London on its last voyage in January 22, 1870 carrying an assortment of industrial items along with beer, wine, theatrical costumes and a large quantity of tiles intended for Sydney’s St Mary’s Cathedral, which had burnt down in 1865.

After turning up the east coast of mainland Australia, she was caught in thick dirty weather that lasted for several days, in what was described at the time as a hurricane. Designed for fast sailing, there was no match for the gale-force winds that smashed the boat, stripping the sails and knocking one poor seaman to his early death.

On April 26 land was sighted amidst large seas. The Walter Hood, in a crippled state, did not have enough canvas left to beat out to sea.

Inevitably she was driven into the rocky shallows. Captain Latto dropped the port anchor to bring her head forward to face the massive seas. It was then a massive wave broke over the deck and drove him against the bulwarks, breaking his ribs. The heaving waves tossed the ship around in the dark, all 34 on-board rushing for shelter in the cabin.

When daylight broke, the true danger of the situation was revealed to the helpless crew. Safety was just 150 metres from shore, but cut-off by large waves pounding the boat and the rocky reef it was perched upon. By midday, the decks were breaking up, cargo was flooding out and the ship was listing terribly, with one young boy carried overboard with the rear mast.

Captain Latto was last seen sinking amid the wreckage after his bulkhead cabin was smashed to smithereens and launched into the wild ocean. It later transpired that he had called for help from his cabin and that the ship’s three officers all declined to put themselves in harm’s way by coming to his assistance, believing him to have originally put the boat and its passengers in peril with his drunkenness.

The day wore on, and still no help was at hand. The cracking timbers and ceaseless roar left little hope for the half-drowned crew.

The wind shifted to the west, lulling the survivors into a sense that the storm was abating. One passenger, Hayes, decided to make for the shore only to be claimed by the heaving seas. He was followed by two crewmen who slipped under the waves to share the same fate. That night the ship’s cook died from exposure and exhaustion.

On Thursday, April 28, the fourth day of the storm, conditions eased. Fearing certain death on the collapsing deck, members of the crew attempted to swim to the shore. Those remaining on the wreck, many of whom could not swim, watched helplessly as their companions drowned.

By afternoon a lone rider was seen emerging from bush on the headland, who then disappeared as quickly as he had appeared. Astonishingly, it later emerged the rider was Patrick Donelley, who had ridden miles along the coast from Bellinger River, after being asked by his stepfather farmer to follow up on a shipwreck nightmare he’d the previous night. It was so vivid and realistic a dream he recognised the actual reef and awoke in a cold sweat.

On the fifth day, the sun rose over a clear sky and less mountainous seas. Local settlers began to appear on the shore, alerted by the incessant howls of a dog aboard the ship and the report that came from the foreboding dream.

Graziers John Harrison and Samuel Bailey attempted to swim through the heavy surf several times to secure a rope from the wreckage. Harrison eventually succeeded in collecting a rope, only for the line to break before he could reach the shore. He finally collapsed with exhaustion onto the sand.

Cargo and broken timbers were washed onto the beach, including several boxes of 19th century show business costumes. A local Aboriginal tribe, who had assembled to watch the spectacle, gathered them up and dressed themselves on the shore in theatrical display and mockery.

150 years since Walter Hood wreck
The wreckage of the Walter Hood. Source: Exploria

By 5pm, word came through from Ulladulla that help was on its way, but it was too late for the captain’s small terrier dog. In desperation the 13 remaining on the exposed stern had been without food for three days and nights and killed and ate the small dog in desperation.

The Illalong arrived about midnight and made several fruitless attempts at an immediate rescue with its lifeboat, eventually waiting until daybreak to collect the last survivors. Of the 35 on-board the Walter Hood there were 23 survivors.

The bodies of those drowned washed ashore and were buried in a suitably marked spot in the bush. Spectators arrived and fought over the most costly articles of wreckage.

150 years Walter Hood wreck
A dive to the wreckage underwater in September 1980. Source: Exploria / Ron Doughton

For years afterwards, local divers would pull up bottles of wine from the shallow depths and still today, after a storm, ceramic tiles appear from the sands. The local Lady Denman Museum has a collection of relics from the wreck handed in by various people over the years.

The most startling find was in 1961 when skin divers found a well preserved skeleton hand with a ring bearing the initials of Captain Latto.

Parts of the ship still remain on the reef, there is cargo beneath the sand and on land a monument marks the wreck and those who died. The original timber blackbutt tablet was destroyed by bushfire, replaced in 1927 by the stone and tile monument behind the wire there today. Reading the inscription from a distance, many don’t realise it is not just a memorial, it is in fact the burial site of the six whose bodies were recovered from the sea.

150 years since Walter Hood wreck
The Walter Hood Memorial. Source: Exploria

As Kevin Millar pointed out, “This was actually the second burial spot, the first resting site was opened up by a storm and the bodies exposed. This led to the current memorial and the community having a ghost day in the past to remember the incident.”

Resting in isolation on the remote Monument Beach of NSW’s south coast.

This article first appeared on Exploria, a platform dedicated to collecting and sharing amazing true stories about everyday locations around Australia. Discover the mysteries your home town is hiding or go one step further by contributing a story or have a real-life adventure on one of the Exploria puzzle trails in your local area.

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