Loch Ard Gorge is about 50 kilometres west of Cape Otway along the Victorian coast and I visited there on the afternoon of 20 April 1987.
When I went to take an exposure from the vantage point there was no-one around. I set up with my large tripod and monorail camera and was composing on the back of the ground glass screen underneath the dark cloth. Even in 1987 it was pretty unusual to see someone using a camera that looked as though it came out of the nineteenth century. When I emerged from under the dark cloth I found I had an audience of six to ten, quietly standing behind me watching me rather than the view.
I was here because this was the site of one of the most famous maritime disasters in Australia’s history.
In the age of sail, sailing ships used the Great Circle Route to reach Australia. This involved sailing from the Atlantic at latitudes below Tasmania to catch the brisk winds of the roaring forties. Arriving quickly was an advantage because otherwise food stocks could run low. The problem was that this meant they were coming up from the south onto a particularly dangerous stretch of coastline.
On 31 May 1878, the wool clipper Loch Ard was approaching this coast but a sea mist prevented using a sextant for a location fix and the captain thought he was some leagues to the south. When the mist lifted at 4am they were off the cliffs and dropping two anchors did not prevent the ship grounding on a reef and then being dashed against the cliffs. Fifty of the fifty-two passengers and crew went down with the ship.
Eighteen-year old Tom Pearce, a ship’s apprentice, was swept into the sea while he was helping to launch a boat. He managed to hold on underneath the upturned boat and eventually came into the shelter of Loch Ard Gorge. Some time later eighteen year old Eva Carmichael, wearing a nightdress, a cork life belt and not much else, was also swept into the gorge clinging to a spar. Two other people had been on the spar but were swept away shortly before. Tom swam out to her and managed to bring her to shore after about an hour. They spent the night together in a cave and the next day Tom climbed the cliffs to find help. These days there is a wooden stairway so you can walk down there but climbing out without this was not a trivial matter. There were steps cut into the cliff at the time but he did not find them. At the top, Tom found horse hoof prints and then two stockmen, one of whom was George Ford, son of Henry Bayles Ford long-time keeper at Cape Otway.
One other curious survivor from the shipwreck was a rare Minton porcelain peacock, destined for the 1880 Melbourne Exhibition. It washed ahore in its packing crate and must have been very well packed. Two delicate vases also survived.
Eva’s father was ship’s doctor although the family was migrating to Australia at the time. There were only six life belts on board and they went to the Carmichael family though only Eva survived. She lost her father and mother, three sisters and two brothers.
Tom and Eva received a lot of media attention at the time. On the one hand there was a romantic expectation that they should marry and on the other, Victorian attitudes suggested that she was compromised by sleeping in a cave with a young sailor and he really should offer to marry to make this right.
However, they then went on to lead quite different lives. Eva returned to Ireland after some months and married a Captain Townshend. I found a 1934 newspaper report of an interview with her in 1925. Tom had proposed marriage to her but she turned him down, believing they had nothing in common. After returning to Ireland she apparently lived on the coast of Ireland with her husband and were often called out to assist shipwrecked sailors. One on occasion the person they assisted was Tom Pearce(!). She had died shortly before the newspaper report, so probably in 1934 at the age of about 74.
Tom Pearce had previously survived another shipwreck when the Eliza Ramsden went down near the entrance to Port Phillip Bay (the harbour for Melbourne) in 1875. Following the wreck of the Loch Ard, he was hailed as a hero and awarded a gold medal by the Royal Humane Society of Victoria as well as receiving £1000 from the Government of Victoria (a huge amount of money at the time). After a few months, he went back to sea. In 1879 he was in another ship of the Loch line that went down, the Loch Sunart, which hit a rock off Ballywalter in what is now Northern Ireland. “The story goes that Tom Pearce was washed ashore and carried up in a senseless condition to the nearest house” which happened to be the house of Eva Townshend (née Carmichael). This was less than a year after the Loch Ard disaster.
Tom married in 1884 and his wife was related to another ship’s apprentice who went down with the Loch Ard (Tom was one and there had been two more). He later became a ship’s captain for the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, which had a monopoly on delivering mail by sea. He retired in 1908 and died later that year at the age of 49.
There is also an historic painting showing Loch Ard and shipwreck debris just after the shipwreck.