The Ill-Fated Complement
Inevitably, the tragedy of Koombana settles upon her passengers and crew: the men, women and children who embarked from Port Hedland on Wednesday, March 20th, 1912.
When the discovery of wreckage erased all doubt that the ship had foundered, the Adelaide Steamship Company set out to compile a complete list of the missing. It was no easy task. Many passengers, especially those travelling in Second Class, had not made reservations. They had simply come aboard, called at the purser’s office and paid their fares. Because the only complete record disappeared with the ship, the company had no alternative but to rely on the recollections of shipping clerks and disembarking passengers, and the assurances of friends and relatives. For several weeks the list slowly grew; more than a dozen names were added. There were also a few crossed off: passengers who had broken their journeys and engaged crew members who had failed to present for work.
Although the company attended diligently to the clerical process, its effort was made to meet the requirements of the registrar-general and to answer questions from the public and the press. Significantly, the company kept no record of next-of-kin, and made no effort to contact the families of the lost. It was easier and less complicated to take no action, admit no liability, and deal only with those who wrote seeking solace or redress.
Perhaps it is time to revisit the men and women of Koombana, to pay some late attention to their lives and circumstances. The respect thus paid cannot be complete or even, any more than the records of their lives are complete or even. But we may accept the fragments, and work with them.
First, we walk Koombana’s decks to meet the 72 men and two women who comprised her crew.
p208Directly below the navigating bridge was the cabin of Captain Thomas Maurice Allen. We need not linger here. Of Koombana’s cautious commander, much is elsewhere written.
From Allen’s cabin, steep stairs port and starboard led down to the promenade deck. Three strides from the bottom of the starboard stair, beside the main companionway, was the cabin of his right-hand man. Koombana’s chief officer—‘first officer’ or ‘first mate’ if you prefer—was Norman Jamieson, another long-time servant of the Adelaide Steamship Company. The Daylesford-born bachelor considered himself a lucky man. He had been transferred from Yongala in February 1911, immediately before that ship’s final voyage.
If the chief officer was stationed below his commander’s right elbow, as it were, second officer Walter Kinley was similarly deployed below his left. Kinley, the only son of a sea captain, was born at Penola in South Australia but educated at the Semaphore Collegiate School just a few blocks from the wharves of Port Adelaide. At 22 years of age, he seemed a little too young for his cap, but had already proved his worth as a seaman.
Third officer F. S. Peacock was on his first voyage with Koombana. In a sense, he had taken two backward steps to reach this place. The 27-year-old had already served as a first officer for the Straits Steamship Company of Singapore, and as second officer aboard Bullarra. But there was prestige associated with Koombana and the Nor’-West run; this new post would not harm his prospects.
Peacock’s accommodation was enviable. The third officer’s cabin was well aft on the promenade deck, near the footbridge to the poop deck. It nestled among First Class staterooms and benefited greatly from the association; it shared their dimensions and large, rectangular window to the world.
Every merchant vessel has, rolled into one, an administrator, secretary, postmaster, paymaster and custodian of cash and valuables. Koombana’s purser was a 28-year-old South Australian, Francis Hedley Harris. Although married with a child, “Hedley” had much in common with first officer Jamieson, a few years his senior. They had served together on other ships, in other places, and both had transferred from Yongala on the eve of that ship’s final departure. Jamieson went to Grantala; Harris came directly to Koombana, for the different sea and sky of the western coast.
The cabins of a ship’s engineers were often placed lower than those of the officers, but the convention was unrelated to status or authority. Because the officers were responsible for the ship’s navigation, their cabins often commanded a broad view of the sea. By similar logic, the engineers slept closer to the machinery of motion. So it was aboard Koombana: the engineers occupied a cluster of cabins port-side on the spar deck, with the First Class smoke room directly above and cattle stalls directly below.
Koombana’s chief engineer was, according to his opposite number on the S.S. Minderoo, “a fine stamp of a Scotsman.” Aberdeen-born William Booth Innes—“Will” to his wife but “Jock” to his shipmates—kept a house for Mrs Innes and the bairns in Hampton Road, Fremantle. His home life was limited to a couple of days each month, of course, but postcards from northern ports punctuated his absences. “This is a photo of the ship at Wyndham Jetty,” he wrote on one, “don’t let those terrors get a hold of it.”
Koombana’s new second engineer, in a cabin directly opposite, was perhaps the unluckiest man aboard. Albert Wassell and his mate Murdoch Gunn had been the second engineers of Echunga and Koombana respectively. To improve their prospects by broadening their experience, they had applied to the company to swap ships. The company had agreed.
In the next cabin along, something seemed different on this trip. Third engineer Walter Kelly was in love. In Perth before the boat sailed, the Ballarat boy had become engaged to a tall, attractive New Zealander named Kitty Gillies. He had tried to convince Kitty to marry him immediately, but she thought they could wait a month. Her box was not quite ready, she quipped.
Kelly’s cabin-mate was fourth engineer Arthur Christie, a good-looking 23-year-old from Sydney who, with his parents’ pride and blessing, had left the family home for a life at sea. For his age, he was highly accomplished; he had hit his straps as second officer of the Paroo, under Captain Richardson.
By contrast, 24-year-old West Australian James Arrow was new to the work. Recruited as fifth engineer in January, this was his third Nor’-West voyage.
Sharing the last cabin of the engineering enclave was nineteen-year-old wireless operator Harry Lyon, born in England but now living in Victoria. Like his cabin-mate, Harry was learning the ropes. Although he had travelled previously as apprentice, this was his first voyage as ‘Marconi man’ in his own right.
With twenty passenger staterooms amidships, and with First and Second Class dining rooms fore and aft, there was little space on the spar deck for crew accommodation. Apart from the engineers, only stewards with special roles had their cabins here.
Well forward, in a well-appointed suite beside the First Class dining room, was Koombana’s highly strung chief steward Frank Johnson. In November 1911, Johnson had appeared in the Fremantle Police Court to answer a charge of assault brought against him by Koombana’s then baker, Edwin Albrecht. Although the action was dismissed by the court without kind words to either party, the dispute triggered industrial action by Koombana’s firemen, who declared that the ship would not leave port while Johnson remained aboard. Of the dispute and its resolution, p211much has been written. Perhaps surprisingly, Johnson and several of his erstwhile antagonists were serving together on this voyage.
Koombana had only two female crew members, to attend to “the particular needs of lady passengers.” A little way down the corridor, past the First Class bar, they shared a windowless cabin beside the linen room. Stewardess Anastasia Freer was a 45-year-old widow with children in South Australia. Her assistant was Delia McDermott, a Dubliner who now called Sydney home. At thirty, Delia was still single, but may have found romance at sea. With steward William Burkin, she had transferred to Koombana from the old Marloo.
Also sharing a cabin, on the starboard side next to the officers’ mess, were second steward Jack Mangan and fore-cabin steward John “Jackie” Coughlan. Mangan, 43, was London-born but now had a wife Minnie, a daughter Maggie and a large extended family in Sydney. Coughlan was younger, and single. Now 32 years of age, he had gone to sea at sixteen. For half of his life he had served in the stewards’ departments of Adelaide Steamship Company vessels. It is difficult to say if he maintained any home other than his mother’s in Port Adelaide, but he had many friends in Fremantle, and Nor’-Westers treated him as one of their own.
* * *
Thus far we have met only the elite: crew members accorded space and comfort in proportion to their responsibilities. No such recognition was granted to Koombana’s seamen, firemen and stewards. Let us now visit the regulars in their cramped accommodation.
From the cabin shared by Mangan and Coughlan, the starboard rail could be followed almost to the ship’s bow: past the windows of a dozen staterooms, past the broad foyer at the bottom of the main companionway, and past the curtained windows of the First Class dining room. Where the dining room wall curved away, gentility suddenly gave way to industry. Three heavy steam winches, side by side, stood guard over the main forward cargo hatch. On the far side of this open space was a blank steel wall relieved only by the doors to two large cabins: a port-side cabin for fourteen firemen, and a starboard-side cabin for fourteen seamen.
In the firemen’s quarters, space was tight. Along the inside of Koombana’s flared bow ran a line of double bunks, head-to-tail like rail wagons on a curved track. A long table with two benches filled most of the remaining space. The personal circumstances of the stokers varied greatly, but most were aged in their late twenties or early thirties. The reason was simple: the work was backbreaking and hot, and the stokehold no place for boys or old men. Those who accepted this confinement did so for extra pay. It was a role accepted by men with debts or demons, or who needed every penny for a family far away.
Of the thirteen men who shared this cabin, only three were born in Australia. Tasmanian Jack Smith had just returned to work after time in p212hospital. At 23, he was the youngest man on the stokehold floor, but he held a third engineer’s certificate and had worked for the company in different capacities for five or six years. Albert Bryant and Tom O’Loughlin were both Victorians. Bryant was single with a girlfriend in Western Australia, while 33-year-old O’Loughlin had a wife and five little daughters in the Perth suburb of Bayswater.
Of the Britishers, William Clarke was London-born but now had a wife and seven children in Seaforth, Liverpool. He had been “stepping out in Australia” for close on two years, his sister-in-law said. Little is known about a second Londoner, Henry Offord, who during his shore leave came and went from a boarding house in East Fremantle.
It was not uncommon for itinerant ship workers to be identified only by a brief entry in a crew list. From that source we learn that McDermott hailed from Liverpool, and Furlong from Bristol. We wonder who, if anyone, watched out for the young Cork Irishman Fitzpatrick.
Among the Scots, Joseph Downie had sailed from Glasgow with Junee in 1907, while Dundee-born Tom Taylor was a raw recruit.
Three Swedes—Norlin, Olsen and Andersen—filled the remaining places.
p213About half of Koombana’s firemen had been involved in the recent strike, on one side or the other. Offord, Downie and Olsen were among those who had downed tools over their objections to the chief steward, while Clarke, Fitzpatrick, Norlin and McDermott were part of the team sent from Melbourne to break the impasse. The three-week strike would probably not be remembered at all, had it not threatened to bring down the first Australian Seamen’s Award on the eve of its declaration. For their part in securing the new award, Clarke, Fitzpatrick, Norlin and McDermott had each received a gold medal and a letter of congratulation from the national secretariat, “for great services rendered to the union at a critical time in its history.” It is safe to assume that they did not display their medals in this cabin.
Directly adjoining the firemen’s quarters, on the starboard side, were the seamen’s quarters. Into this bunkhouse, twelve able seamen and two young ordinary seamen were crammed.
The ordinary seamen, both eighteen years of age, were almost certainly given the last two bunks in this tight and tapering space. New recruit Fred Herbert, from Melbourne, was the only Australian in the room. Jokes about convict ancestry were probably part of his introduction to seafaring life. By contrast, Sid Stewart from Shepherd’s Bush may well have drawn comfort from the mix of accents in this little Britain.
Three of the able seamen were Londoners. William Farnell held a second officer’s ticket and was probably the most experienced hand. For several years he and his brother Farnell Farnell had sailed together out of London, but after the death of their parents, they left the old country. For another two years they remained together, working the Australian east coast. Their last shared voyage, in August 1908, was with Captain Tyler aboard Komura, when the ship lost part of her propeller in a storm off the Solitary Islands.
For Charles Herbert Stanley—not to be confused with storekeeper Herbert Bertie Stanley—the merchant marine was something new. After fifteen years with the Royal Navy, most recently aboard H.M.S. Encounter, Charlie had come to Fremantle. After a short spell as a wharf labourer, he was back at sea, with Koombana on the Nor’-West run.
The third Londoner was 34-year-old Harry Rea. Although he had an older brother in the navy, Harry was almost alone in providing for their mother back home in Camberwell.
The circumstances of the two Bristol men could scarcely have been more different. Aboard Koombana for the first time was 32-year-old Fred Gunning. The death of his wife had left him solely responsible for their daughter; he had left the little girl in care in Adelaide and come west for work. By contrast, things were looking up for able seaman M. Heffernan, or M. Ryan as he sometimes identified himself. His wife, their little son, and her 21-year-old daughter were on their way to Fremantle aboard the p214Aberdeen liner Gothic, to begin a new life in Western Australia. He had not yet told his sister in London that he was a married man. He would surprise her soon.
Fred Wilson, born in North Shields, now called Western Australia home; he and his wife had settled at Woodlupine, south-west of the capital.
Of Harrington-born J. McGuckin, little is known.
In all, Koombana had ten Irish crew members. It was pure coincidence that three came from the little village of Termonfeckin in Drogheda. Able seaman Peter “Petie” Clinton was one. With Heffernan, he had transferred from the old Innamincka in August 1911.
Although born in Liverpool, 36-year-old William Carton also called Termonfeckin home. His father, also a seaman, had been born there, but worked out of Liverpool. The son not only followed his father to sea; he returned to Termonfeckin with his English wife Amelia.
New to Koombana was 25-year-old Michael “Jack” Dwyer from Dungarvan. His father was a sailor, still working but not making good money. Mrs Dwyer now relied upon Jack to top up what her husband sent home.
Of Dubliner Thomas McDonnell, nothing is known.
The sole Scot among the seamen was Stirling-born Peter Jenkins. He had been with the Adelaide Steamship Company for five years and, like his countryman Joe Downie in the stokehold, had signed on in Glasgow for the delivery voyage of the cattle steamer Junee. In a letter written from Manila in August 1911, he had told his brother that he might request a transfer to another of the company’s ships, “for a change.”
One resident of the seamen’s quarters had distinct duties and title. Night watchman Harry Bow had emigrated from Dorset; he now lived in Western Australia with his wife Florence.
* * *
From the spar deck, between the doors to the firemen’s and seamen’s quarters, a near-vertical stairway led down to the main deck. On the port side, directly beneath the firemen’s quarters, was a cabin shared by eighteen stewards.
Gordon Gee, a 25-year-old from Sydney, was Koombana’s saloon waiter. He had sailed Australia’s southern coast as barman of the Karoola, and between ships had maintained his links with the merchant marine by working at Smith’s Railway Hotel in North Fremantle. There he made friends as easily as he had at sea. He was, the hotel patrons insisted, “a model of good nature and respectability.” With what authority and clarity they spoke is difficult to judge.
Three of Koombana’s First Class stewards were English. With his parents and elder brother, 23-year-old Henry Durham from Brighton had emigrated to Western Australia a few months earlier. In a sense, he was the trailblazer for his family: before coming to Koombana, he had worked the Cape route from Southampton with the Union-Castle p215Line. Percy Farrance, from Chislehurst in Kent, was also 23; he had an Australian girlfriend now and looked set to stay. And Claude “Bennie” Benedict from Bournemouth had been with the company for a few years. He had transferred to Koombana from Moonta in 1911.
At about £5 per month, there was no fortune to be made as a second-grade steward. Typically, the positions were filled by young men seeking a taste of seagoing life, or easy passage to a new land. It is hardly surprising that very few of Koombana’s stewards were Australian-born.
Among the Englishmen was 21-year-old Jack Blades from Middlesbrough. His parents were comfortable working folk who made it clear that they expected him to repay the costs of fitting him out for a seagoing life.
The circumstances of Joe Winpenny from Leeds were strikingly different. His father had died and his mother in Yorkshire needed help to get by.
Twenty-two-year-old H. Smith from Clapham was new to life at sea. Koombana was his first ship, and this his first voyage. Harry Hughes from Swansea was two years older and one month wiser; this was his second voyage.
From a family of fifteen children in Bootle, Liverpool, Robert Davies had left for the sea at seventeen, to support his parents. Their need was unquestionable but it was with an eye to adventure that he set out. Before leaving home he sent a short note to his Sunday school teacher at the Free Welsh Church in Merton-road:
I regret to state I shall not be in Sunday School next Sunday, or for a good many more Sundays to come. I am about to try my luck in Australia, if I can succeed there, and by God’s help I will. Remember me to my class at Sunday School. Good-bye.
Where adventure is sought, it is often sought in company. The two Scots, Edward Wardlaw and William Dick, had struck out together from the old country and had remained together from ship to ship. After serving aboard the Ferret, they had transferred to Koombana in August 1911. Dick, who now had a wife and child back home, took his shore leave with his mate at a Scottish-run boarding house in Perth.
Londoner William Burkin was one of nine brothers, but only he and George had come to Australia. After working the south coast aboard Marloo, he had transferred to Koombana early in 1911. Like all first-time visitors to Broome, he had been greatly taken by the sight of large ships left high and dry by the ebb of the tide. Wading in knee-deep water by the jetty, he took a magnificent photograph of his shipmates resting on and around Koombana’s great propeller. The boys must have been delighted when the picture appeared in The Western Mail.
At 33, Burkin was fully ten years older than most of the stewards, but was popular with all. He looked out for the young ones, too, especially Arthur Salkilld who, at seventeen years and eight months, was Koombana’s p217youngest crewman. Arthur was fresh from the family home in the Sydney suburb of Leichhardt.
If Arthur Salkilld was green, 27-year-old Stanley Reynolds from Adelaide was greener still. This was not only his first ship; it was his first working voyage.
Completing the tiny Australian contingent was 27-year-old Queenslander James Crosbie. “Jim” to his mates but forever “Jimsy” to his sister, Crosbie had served on Grantala before coming west in 1911, following his father who had taken work as a government engine driver at Kalgoorlie.
Koombana’s stewards’ department was constantly changing. There were fresh faces on almost every run and 32-year-old Dubliner P. Finnerty had seen most of them. He had been with Koombana almost since the beginning.
The high turnover of recruits had its particular misfortunes. At Fremantle, a few hours before Koombana’s departure, Walter Burrows had agreed to serve.
Among Koombana’s crew were several who could not read or write. The 54-year-old Welsh steward William Cant was one. On land, illiteracy was an inconvenience; at sea, it guaranteed alienation from the world left behind. While others thrived on words from home, illiterate sailors wrote no letters and found none waiting. And too often, in tragedy, they left wages that would never be claimed.
* * *
From the stewards’ quarters on the main deck, corridors either side of the main forward cargo hatch led aft to two steel doors separating the human accommodation from the cattle stalls. At the end of the port-side corridor, past the washhouse, was a cabin shared by bo’sun and carpenter.
Koombana’s bo’sun—“boatswain” if you prefer—was 33-year-old Irishman James “Nish” Levins. Like able seamen Carton and Clinton, Levins came from the village of Termonfeckin, Drogheda. He had lost his father when he was eight; he now supported his mother Mary from the other side of the world.
Even a steel ship needed a carpenter. Little is known about Glasgow-born Thomas Grant, newly hired. Perhaps he came with fine joinery skills from the shipyards of Clydebank, or perhaps he just ‘knew a thing or two’ and made it up as he went along.
On the starboard side, similarly situated, was a cabin set aside for donkeyman and storekeeper.
While Koombana’s engineers took charge of boiler, engine, tailshaft and propeller, the donkeyman attended to all other steam-driven machinery. John Kearns, with an ailing wife and two children in Belfast, had come to Koombana as a strikebreaking fireman on the promise of promotion to donkeyman after three months. It meant better pay and an end to shovelling coal. It also meant a cabin, albeit one he would share with storekeeper and barkeeper Herbert Bertie Stanley, who had been p218with Koombana almost since the beginning. Like several of his shipmates, Stanley had gone to sea as a young man after the death of his father. His mother, living in the Melbourne suburb of South Yarra, was heavily dependent on money her boy sent home.
Further back on the main deck, directly below the First Class dining room, was Koombana’s galley. And beside the galley on the port side were the cabins of those whose business it was to keep the passengers well fed.
In the first galley cabin was chief cook Walter Tutt. The 41-year-old English widower had only recently joined the ship. As a cook aboard the old Innamincka he had travelled the southern and eastern coast of Australia, leaving his two boys in Hobart with their grandmother Annie Worbey. His transfer delivered a much-needed rise in salary, but Koombana would take him even further from home. For the present, annual reunions were all he could hope for.
Tutt shared his cabin with pantryman William Black who, like second officer Kinley, came from Penola in South Australia. But while the Kinleys were of a seafaring bent, the Blacks turned their talents to horseracing and football.
In the absence of a candlestick-maker, Koombana’s butcher and baker had the second galley cabin to themselves. At 5' 0" tall, butcher Charlie Walker was as well known for his proportions as for his cheerful disposition. He presented to the world with a smile and a cleaver, standing on a box as necessary. Charlie had a wife and three little kids in South Fremantle, where he had run a butcher shop before going to sea. He had run off with Koombana when she first came to Fremantle in 1909; she had been his mistress ever since.
Since the bunfight between Frank Johnson and Edwin Albrecht, Charlie Walker had had a different cabin-mate on almost every trip. Koombana’s latest baker, aboard for the first time, was a 25-year-old Englishman, Albert Deller. His baking had yet to be proven, but his need for a steady income was not difficult to discern. With both a wife and a widowed mother in London, he had taken the best wage on offer.
There had been changes in the third galley cabin also. Back in July, shock and disbelief had attended the death of second cook William Jones. A fall down the main companionway left Jones in a coma; he died in hospital a few days later. Since then, there had been a string of replacements, and third cook G. Jones from Liverpool (no relation) could only guess who would share his cabin on this trip. Indeed, there remains some doubt about who, if anyone, wore the second cook’s hat on Koombana’s Trip No. 37. Although a Swede named H. Gainsburg had signed on in Fremantle, there is doubt about whether he presented for work.
At the bottom of the galley hierarchy, and probably relegated to the cattlemen’s quarters, were two recent recruits. John Jackson, a 22-year-old from Gilnahirk in Belfast, had signed on as kitchenman, while Evan Davies p219took the exalted position of scullion. Evan was the older brother of Robert Davies, already working in the stewards’ department. Back in Bootle, Liverpool, their parents were delighted—and somehow reassured—that two of their boys were together on the other side of the world.
* * *
When Koombana left Port Hedland on Wednesday, March 20th, 1912, only two ports of call remained. Among the 82 passengers known to be aboard, ten were directly linked to Broome and its pearling industry. A further eighteen were associated with Derby and its beef cattle. And 22, from all parts of Western Australia, were shearers engaged by their union for seasonal work at Liveringa Station.
The others—32 in all—represented many facets of a distinct Nor’-West life. They included a wharfinger, a police corporal, and a gaoler’s wife; two engineers and a surveyor-turned-missionary; a saloon-keeper, a shopkeeper, and two holiday-makers. But these are mere statistics. Let us take this microcosm and unpick it.
It was no accident that Koombana’s complement included ten passengers whose travels were directly related to the business of pearls and pearl-shelling. In Broome, the summer lay-up was nearing an end and the 1912 season was about to begin.
Saloon passenger George Harper, of Harper Brothers Pearlers, was heading north to rejoin his brothers Hugo, Norman and Gilbert for the start of the season. George loved the Koombana, or so his friends said; he had delayed his departure from Fremantle to travel by her. The voyage he had looked forward to, however, was very nearly a short one. At Geraldton, he stepped out with old friends from the rowing club, lost track of the time, and very nearly missed the boat.
Master pearler Sydney Pigott, secretary of the Pearlers’ Association, had remained in Broome for the summer but had sent his wife and two stepdaughters south to escape the worst of the heat. He now keenly awaited their return. His marriage to Jane Skamp in 1900 had been life-changing. In an instant, he became the head of a family. Jane, widowed about ten years earlier, brought two beautiful daughters everywhere admired but of an age that neither demanded nor countenanced a replacement for the father they had lost.
By 1912, Jane Pigott knew Koombana well. For this trip north she had booked side-by-side staterooms, amidships on the promenade deck. Alice and Jennie could share one; she would take the other. There was a fair chance, she thought, that she would have the second all to herself, since few women who travelled First Class also travelled alone.
Alice Beatrice Skamp had lost her father at eight and gained a stepfather a few days after her eighteenth birthday. Aboard Koombana on the day they left Geraldton, another significant life-mark had been reached. How Alice felt about being thirty and still single is not known. p220At 27, younger sister Genevieve Callanan Skamp had a little more time to ponder her future.
Broome’s pearling aristocracy usually travelled First Class, but on the shoulders of the seasons, demand for Koombana’s staterooms often exceeded supply. On this voyage, several of the well-heeled found themselves in steerage, sharing dinner with the boys from the backblocks: the cattlemen engaged to Emanuel’s and the shearers bound for Liveringa. One so relegated was Abraham de Vahl Davis, well known to all in Broome. Brother-in-law of the “pearl king” Mark Rubin, Davis was the pre-eminent pearl buyer in Western Australia. Success and popularity notwithstanding, he did not relish this latest return to work. A difficult and much-publicised divorce had taken its toll, and it seemed that he had spent most of the last five months at sea, aboard one steamer or another. Of the remarkable man Broome knew as “Abe”, much might be written.
Travelling with Abraham Davis and in his employ was Englishman John Evans. It is not known whether Evans had been hired as a temporary assistant or was being groomed for a managerial role in Rubin & Davis of London & Broome.
Of no relation to Abraham was the young Englishman James S. Davis, the Broome representative of Siebe Gorman & Company, manufacturers and suppliers of diving apparatus. Davis had travelled to Fremantle to welcome—and introduce to an enthusiastic press contingent—eleven p221English divers about to try their hand at pearling. The stakes were high, and not only for the divers. Now that the federal government had declared an end date for the use of indentured coloured labour, Siebe Gorman’s survival in Broome depended on the success of the “white experiment.”
Joining Koombana at Port Hedland for the overnight run to Broome were two well-established pearlers.
Colourful Queenslander Captain Charles Browne Stuart was near the end of a remarkable career. He had arrived in Brisbane in about 1884, as captain of the sailing ship Bell. Ten years later, as a veteran of both sail and steam, he followed opportunities that carried him ever more northward and westward. After an experiment with dugong fishing off Mackay, he shipped railway sleepers to Normanton on the Gulf of Carpentaria. From there, he continued to Thursday Island to take command of one of James Clark’s pearling schooners. Everywhere, the captain’s competence was recognised; in time, he found himself managing all ‘outside’ operations for a pearling company in Broome. In 1909, upon the collapse of that enterprise, Stuart established himself as a pearler on his own account, reaping the rewards of independence when Broome’s star was at its brightest. All the while, his wife and children—eight at last count—remained in South Brisbane. It is not known how often he saw them—or, indeed, when he had found time to conceive them.
Joseph Johnson was also independent and successful. His operation was tiny compared to that of Mark Rubin or the Pigotts, but it was profitable nonetheless. He and his brother Willie were joint owners of Eos and the newly built Arafura, and held stakes in several other vessels. While the price of shell remained high, the money would continue to roll in.
The Malay pearl diver Hassan, who also boarded at Port Hedland, was almost certainly under engagement to Joe Johnson or Captain Stuart, but very little is known about him.
The same might be said of one Mr A. McRouble, who booked through from Fremantle to Broome. In the “Nationality” column of the ship’s passenger list, the entries rarely ranged beyond “British”, “Colored”, or “Aboriginal”, but none of these terms seemed appropriate to this well-educated foreigner. The gap would be filled later, from a shipping clerk’s recollection: “Dark complexion, like native of Philippines or Cape Verde. Spoke well.”
Broome’s pearling and pearl-shelling industry was an interesting mix of large and small operations. It had remained so for ten years at least because a particular size of boat had proven most efficient for the gathering of shell. Almost all divers now worked from two-masted luggers of 12–14 tons, regardless of the size of the enterprise. In this respect, the Kimberley cattle industry could not have been more different. Economies of scale had ensured that the beef cattle industry remained the province of a few great pioneering enterprises. Of twenty cattlemen aboard p222Koombana, most were employed, directly or indirectly by Forrest Emanuel & Company or by the Kimberley Pastoral Company.
Rob Jenkins was stock agent and representative for Forrest Emanuel & Company in Derby. At 52, the long-time widower and former station manager was one of the most experienced men in the business, and as familiar to the crew of Koombana as to the townsfolk of Derby. “Another Dad Fleming,” one of the locals called him.
Rob’s eldest daughter, 27-year-old Edith Jenkins, often travelled with her father for company. Cast into the role of mother upon the death of her own, she had looked after her younger sisters and had grown up quickly. And if her young life in the suburbs of Perth had seemed hard, the remote stations of the Kimberley had changed her perspective. More than once she had been left alone at a remote homestead, to deal with any and all challenges while her father and his men ranged elsewhere.
If Rob Jenkins was delighted to have his daughter travelling with him, Elder Shenton’s agent Fred Clinch was troubled by his eldest daughter’s distress at seeing him go. On March 17th, after Koombana had rounded the North West Cape, he wrote to his wife:
This St. Pats “seventeenth of Old Ireland” we are nearing Onslow after a nice smooth run. There are a good number of passengers a good few who are Derby people whom I know.
I can’t get over poor Eileen breaking up so at my departure, she said “Don’t go away Papa” as though she had some instinctive presentiment of ill-foreboding, no doubt she feels a bit lonely going into a situation . . .
Clinch was proceeding to Derby to supervise the mustering of cattle for shipment, but as Koombana steamed northward, his thoughts remained in the south.
Also travelling First Class were two bright, ambitious brothers on parallel pathways. Born in England but raised in Queensland, George Piper and Alfred “Ally” Piper had learned the cattle business as protégés of Queensland pastoralist James S. Tyson, and had come west to further their careers. George, now thirty and recently engaged to be married, managed Margaret Downs Station; Ally, two years his junior, managed Meda.
If George Piper’s mind had turned to romance over the summer break, it was never fully distracted from the business of running a cattle station. Before departure from Fremantle, he had hired four new men to assist with the running of Margaret Downs—four men very pleased to learn that their engagements would begin with twelve days of luxury, travelling First Class aboard Koombana.
Of the four, W. W. Purcell was the most experienced. For several years he had managed Satterthwaite’s run at Alma, north of Geraldton.
p223Hired as a drover was William Poor, from Pyramid Hill in Victoria.
Piper’s third recruit was a ‘new chum.’ The young Englishman A. S. Taylor, from Berkshire, had only landed at Fremantle in November, but to his credit he had already been working, on George Gooch’s “Cheriton” estate at Gingin.
Finally, young Pearson from Perth was pleased to be hired, and pleased that his Uncle Bill—Derby wharfinger Captain William Pearson—would also be aboard for the run north.
Until recently, Tom Forrest had been butchering at Tuckanarra, south of Meekatharra, but there was better money to be made as a teamster on contract to Emanuel Brothers. Forrest had a wife and two children in Perth, and had recently bought into a property at Pingelly. Like several of the shearers, he needed money to get his own venture up and running.
One of the few of Koombana’s cattlemen not employed by Emanuel Brothers was James Hayes. Stepbrother to the pioneer pastoralist Joseph Blythe Senior, Hayes now managed the Blythes’ station at Brooking Creek near Fitzroy Crossing. Travelling with Hayes was forty-year-old Jim Craigie, returning from a holiday in the east. Craigie had been a Kalgoorlie butcher in the early days of the ’fields, but for seven years had called Brooking home.
p224The last of the engaged cattlemen was William Laughton Cowain, teamster for the Kimberley Pastoral Company. He too had come south for the summer, but the death of his mother a few days before Christmas had greatly altered the character of this latest family reunion.
Also travelling First Class to Derby was nineteen-year-old Will Smith. From the port he would make his way a hundred miles east to Napier Downs, where his uncle Jim Ronan was manager.
Of similar age and stage was young Englishman S. H. Slade. Having worked in both the London and Fremantle offices of Dalgety’s, he was on his way north for station experience.
At Port Hedland, the Kimberley cattlemen were joined by Frank McGowan. The purpose of McGowan’s visit to Derby is not known.
In any community there are those who seem happiest when taking their chances. At Fremantle, former Queensland drover William “Billy” Vile had boarded the ship and bought a steerage ticket to Derby. There is no indication that he knew where or for whom he would be working. The same might be said of teamster Charlie Matthews; he had walked a hundred miles to catch the boat at Carnarvon.
In a sense, Fred Drake was alone at the bottom of the cattlemen’s hierarchy. Not only was he attending to stock to be disembarked at Broome rather than Derby, he was also more like a passage worker than a passenger. When the shippers of livestock placed their own men aboard to tend their animals, the attendants did not enjoy even a steerage cabin. They were accommodated in the cattlemen’s quarters under the starboard bow. On this trip, the residents of that bunkhouse were a ragtag lot: two kitchenmen, two late recruits to the stewards’ department, one or two shearers working their passage to Derby, and “Jockey Jack” Dwyer, who was to Mr Milne’s horses what Drake was to the Broome-bound cattle.
* * *
The so-called Liveringa team was Koombana’s largest contingent: 22 shearers bound for Liveringa Station, via Derby. There was plenty of work ahead; Liveringa and Noonkanbah each ran about 100,000 sheep on a million acres. There was no possibility of shearing that huge flock using local labour of any colour. Fortunately, the climate favoured shearing in the autumn, when willing men could be engaged in the south.
We now step back a little in time, to meet the shearers port by port as they come aboard. At Fremantle on March 8th, Australian Workers’ Union secretary T. L. Brown came to Victoria Quay to farewell the men his union had engaged.
Patrick Smith had a small farm at Bridgetown. At the end of February he had left the property in the care of his mate Jim Drummond and set out for Fremantle. Travelling with him were Donald McSwain and William McKibbin, who were partners in a nearby property. All three had signed up to shear at Liveringa.
p225The men who gathered on the wharf found much in common. Walter Thornton was married and lived in Victoria Park, but had been working on his brother’s property at Wagin. George Lawrence was from Woodlupine; he had left his wife to manage their property. From Northam came two brothers: Richard Quinlan, 25, and Thomas Quinlan, 21.
Of the fourteen who boarded at Fremantle, only four were itinerant professional shearers. Between sheds, Tom Goddard lived with his wife Rose and three children at Armadale, on the outskirts of the capital. Of T. Reece, Robert Henry, or New Zealander Tom Barry, little is known.
Most of the men had paid for their passage in advance. On the shoulders of the seasons, when demand was high, it was risky to do otherwise. George Farrow from Northam took his chances and secured a berth, but the plans of young H. Bates and William Smith very nearly came unstuck. Smith had the ticket that his mother had bought for him, but his mate came intending to ‘book on board.’ When they were told that the ship was full, Smith gave his ticket to Bates and signed on as a passage worker in the stewards’ department.
Also at the quay, with his wife and children to see him off, was the Kimberley Pastoral Company’s wool classer, Ernest Dalton. He too was Liveringa-bound.
At Geraldton, Koombana’s first port of call on the run north, another five shearers joined the ship.
Bill Lewis was well known in Geraldton; in a sense, he had married into a town as others may marry into a faith. His chosen partner of later life was the widowed Mrs Wright, one of the town’s oldest and best-known residents. Lewis loved the Koombana, his friends said; like pearler George Harper, he had delayed his departure to travel by her. He could easily have booked ‘saloon’ but with twenty shearers in steerage all Liveringa-bound, the camaraderie of the Second Class dining room was not to be forfeited, at least not for a softer pillow or a better class of napkin.
At the pier, Lewis was joined by three men who had come in by train from the mining centre of Cue. The youngest was Englishman Andy Shiels, who came as much for adventure as for the pay packet.
The work had a different meaning for 39-year-old James Clarke, married with six children. He was engaged in the serious business of carving out a future. He and his wife Elizabeth had heard about good wheat land soon to be released in the Dalwallinu district, but they needed money to make a start. Elizabeth would remain in Cue and keep her position at the hospital; he would go shearing for the winter.
Like James Clarke, South Australian Robert Scougall had six children, but his circumstances were very different. His marriage to Flora had ended in divorce in 1904. The children had gone to live with their mother and her new partner, and he had made his own way in Western Australia. In Geraldton, before boarding Koombana, he dashed off a letter to his p226younger sister Mary, telling her that he was with friends and bound for Derby, to shear at a sheep station inland.
For the last member of the Geraldton contingent, shearing represented something of a career change. Sydney Spencer, originally from Victoria, had spent fifteen years prospecting along the Murchison River.
Koombana was due at Carnarvon on March 15th, and two men came overland to catch her. North from Wooramel came station manager C. A. Bailey, and west from Winderie came 23-year-old Tom Binning Junior, who had been working on his father’s property. Tom Binning Senior had advised his son not to waste the opportunity to scout for good land in the north. To that end, the son brought equipment for an extended tour of the back country.
The last of the shearers—the 22nd member of the Liveringa team—joined the ship at Onslow. David Jones was a native of Geraldton or Northampton, but had been working inland along the Ashburton River. After boarding from a lighter in the roads, he paid his fare and joined the others in steerage.
* * *
Among Koombana’s passengers were ten men engaged in government engineering work.
Travelling First Class was 38-year-old engineer William Milne, perhaps the most popular civil servant in the Nor’-West. A few years back, the Geological Survey Department had told the cattle breeders that their land sat above an almost limitless source of drinkable artesian water. That was good news, but to have Mr Milne and his drilling party demonstrate it was something else. A chain of spectacularly successful wells along the stock routes was the visible result of three years’ work. In January, Milne had come south for a holiday and for the birth of his third child. After ten weeks of family life, he was northbound again.
Milne brought with him new drilling equipment, fresh horses, and a gang of six men. Only two of the men, A. Baker and South Australian William Libby Davey, had worked with him before. In November last, Davey had gone south to be married. After a long vacation he was now returning to work.
The party included two young Englishmen going north for the first time. Twenty-two-year-old Fred Martin from East Greenwich had come to Western Australia to visit his aunt. When work offered, he decided to stay for a while. Edgar Green from Wraxall in Somerset told a similar story: he had met a Western Australian girl and decided to stick around.
Of William Hurford from Llanelly in Victoria, or last-minute recruit Maurice Vasey, nothing is known.
Occupying a stateroom opposite the entrance to the First Class social hall was 46-year-old Public Works engineer, George Simpson. Responsible for a major upgrade of Broome’s town water supply, George had long p227divided his time between family in the south and work in the north. During his absences, his wife Amelia did her best to keep a young son and five spirited daughters in check.
It had been reported that Simpson would take two men with him on this trip. By a process of elimination, the likely lads emerge. Jack Murphy, recently married to Perth girl Leah Asher, had for a few years been working in the machine room at The West Australian. Garnet Sydney Bailey, a native of Pill in Somerset, had been working in the south-western farming town of Wagin. He had recently become engaged to a local girl.
Sharing George Simpson’s stateroom on the promenade deck was Derby wharfinger Captain William Robin Pearson. A long-serving master of the Melbourne Steamship Company, he had tired of life at sea and had taken a shore job. He was close to retirement now; indeed, he had told close friends that he would soon resign his post and join his wife and children on their property at Springfield in Victoria.
Also returning to Derby after a summer break was Pearson’s friend and close working associate, Corporal Frank Buttle, Derby’s senior police officer and gaoler. When Koombana crossed the Hedland bar on March 20th, 1912, Buttle had been with the force for nineteen years and a day. He had accepted the Derby post in February 1910, at a time of great change. New rules that removed the financial incentive for police officers to arrest natives for cattle stealing had all but emptied the Derby gaol. Buttle came to the Nor’-West with a mission and a mandate: to present a more humane, civilised face and to disown the excesses of the recent past.
Like Captain Pearson, Buttle took the view that there were better places than Derby for raising a family. When he sailed north, he left his wife Minnie and their two children in Perth.
In Frank Buttle’s absence, the Derby gaol had been under the supervision of warder George Gilham, who now awaited the arrival of his wife and 22-year-old daughter. With several Derby residents for company, Mrs Gilham and Miss Gilham were heading north to join George for the cooler months.
Also travelling First Class were two of Derby’s hotelkeepers: wine saloon owner Dean Spark and Derby Hotel proprietor Louise Sack, whom Doug Moore of Ord River Station would later describe as “old Mrs. Sack, mother of all the Sacks in the country at the time.” Louise had gone south for the summer to escape the heat and to spend time with her daughter Evelyn McGovern and baby granddaughters, twins Ruby and Pearl. Her six-year-old grandson Thomas Crotty had also come along; it had been agreed that he would return to Derby with his grandmother. But when Mrs Sack tried to book a stateroom cabin for herself and Thomas, she discovered that First Class was almost full. Only a single cabin space—sharing a stateroom with Mrs Pigott—remained available. It seems that Louise Sack spoke directly to Captain Allen, whom she knew well. The p228captain raised no objection to having the boy bunk in with his grandma; indeed, he seemed more concerned about Mrs Sack’s comfort than any breach of rules. “We’ll make do,” she said.
Travelling steerage, and engaged to Mrs Sack as a domestic, was 21-year-old English immigrant Florence “Florrie” Price. It is not known whether she was going north for the first time, or was returning to Derby to complete her engagement. What is very clear is that she had misgivings about the journey. To a family friend she wrote:
Dear Mrs Lambert
I am very sorry but I am going by the “Koombana” on tuesday. I don’t want to go, but I must. I have engaged myself for twelve months. I would have liked to have come and said good-bye, but it is impossible. I feel very much troubled. You will say good-bye for me to all friends.
Good-bye from Flo.
Travelling with greater enthusiasm was forty-year-old surveyor Robert Main. The youngest son of a Presbyterian minister, Main was going north to assess several candidate sites for a new Nor’-West Presbyterian p229mission. From Broome, he would travel to the outlying districts with Constable Fletcher, who had taken leave of absence from the police force to concentrate on his work for the church.
It appears that of Koombana’s 82 passengers, only two were travelling for recreation or recuperation. For James Doyle, owner of the Comet Skating Rink at South Fremantle, the voyage was restorative. He had recently undergone surgery and needed rest and relaxation. Although he had not previously travelled by Koombana he had a connection with the ship, albeit one he would perhaps have preferred to forget. On March 5th, 1911 the sporting columnist for The Sunday Times had written:
It is not likely that the manager of the Comet Skating Rink at South Beach will put on any more boxing contests in which one of the principals is an unknown man, such as was Corbett (or whatever his name is), the victim of Black Paddy’s furious assault last Monday night . . . The show put on was a poor one, for the simple reason that Black Paddy’s opponent knew nothing about boxing; and it was a disgusted mob which filed out of the rink when the big, lumbering baker from the Koombana was carried to his corner in a state of collapse. Corbett was the softest thing Paddy ever had handed out to him in his natural. The loser is supposed to have won several battles in the East. We have nothing but sympathy for the men he beat there.
Koombana’s other holiday-maker was carpenter Ben Smith, who had just completed a long, hot stint at the Youanmi gold mine south of Sandstone. After an overland trip of 250 miles, he had arrived in Geraldton and booked return passage to Derby.
* * *
To discover each passenger’s story, every lead and laneway has been followed, but a few bare names remain.
Fred Cane and Wallace Ireland were late additions to the stewards’ department. Their reasons for travel are not known.
Of young Gilbert, known to have embarked at Fremantle for Broome, nothing is known.
Of Scandinavian labourer H. Hartel, who boarded at Cossack and bought a ticket to Derby, nothing is known.
* * *
One case of particular poignancy has been left until almost the last. Port Hedland shopkeeper Harry Briden had never made a great success of his grocery and general businesses. Although he and his wife Annie had managed to support their four children, they were after six years still in temporary accommodation: a rough cottage of whitewashed hessian and corrugated iron, with a packing-crate floor. In January 1912, Annie Briden became seriously ill. Leaving Harry and the children, she went south by steamer and was admitted to Perth Hospital. In her absence, the financial p230situation became desperate. On the verge of a second bankruptcy, and with hospital bills looming, Harry saw no alternative but to leave their children with friends and go to Broome for work. Arrangements were made quickly. Of the three youngest children, Dollie and Otto would stay in Port Hedland, while five-year-old Mollie would go to Marble Bar to stay with the Hedditch family. Thus the little girl, who had so recently suffered the alarm of waving good-bye to her mother, found herself walking with her father in pre-dawn starlight to the railway station. It was a memory she would carry for a very long time.
* * *
Our top-down tour began at the navigating bridge; it ends on the ’tween deck. There seems no doubt that Koombana carried at least one Aboriginal prisoner and one Malay prisoner. Both The Hedland Advocate and the Broome Chronicle listed prisoners among those who boarded at Port Hedland. But neither in those reports nor elsewhere were the names of the men recorded. It is not known what they were convicted of, or charged with, if indeed they were charged at all. Nor can it be known if they went to their deaths in chains, or were by some act of kindness released for a slim chance at life.
* * *
Our tour complete, we stand at Koombana’s rail and stare into the sea. Perhaps we came seeking clarity or closure. We leave with neither. But however imperfect this late engagement, we are nonetheless altered by it. By new acquaintance we are admitted to the privilege of personal sadness. We move beyond the mechanics of disaster, and beyond the naked list, to see a tragedy defined not by brief suffering but by the forfeiture of hopes and aspirations: a tragedy not of life extinguished but of life foregone. Thus we join in common prayer, and thus we take communion.
Allen, Captain Thomas Maurice
Arrow, James Grant
Bailey, C. A.
Bailey, Garnet Sydney
Benedict, Claude H. (Bennie)
Binning, Thomas Henry
Black, William Patrick
Blades, John Stephen (Jack)
Bryant, Albert Edward
Burkin, William H.
Buttle, Corporal Frank Taylor
Cant, Frederick William (William)
Christie, Arthur Mowbray
Clarke, James William
Clarke, William Job
Clinch, Frederick W. B. (Fred)
Clinton, Peter C. (Petie)
p232Coughlan, John Francis (Jackie)
Cowain, William Laughton
Craigie, James S.
Crosbie, James (Jim)
Crotty, Master Thomas Charles
Dalton (or D’Alton), Ernest James
Davey, William Libby
Davies, Robert W.
Davis, Abraham de Vahl
Davis, James S.
Deller, Albert Ernest
Dick, William C.
Dwyer, Jack (“Jockey Jack”)
Dwyer, Michael (Jack)
Farnell, William Alexander
Gee, Gordon Alan
Gilham, Mrs F.
Grant, Thomas Millar
Green, Edgar P.
Harper, George N.
Harris, Francis Hedley
Heffernan (alias Ryan), M.
Hughes, J. (Harry)
Hurford, William Henry
Innes, William Booth (Jock)
Ireland, Wallace Bruce
Jamieson, Norman C.
Jenkins, Edith Emily
Jenkins, Robert Henry (Rob)
Johnson, Francis William (Frank)
Johnson, Joseph Madison
Kelly, Walter John
Kinley, W. R. A.
Lawrence, George H.
Levins, James (“Nish”)
Lewis, William (Bill)
Lyon, Harry A.
Main, Robert William
p233Mangan, John Joseph (Jack)
Martin, G. Frederick (Fred)
McKibbin, William J.
Milne, William Patrick
Murphy, John (Jack)
Peacock, F. S.
Pearson, Captain William Robin
Piper, Alfred Charles (Ally)
Price, Florence Lucy (Florrie)
Purcell, W. W. or W. A.
Quinlan, Thomas A.
Quinlan, Richard C.
Rea, Harry A.
Reynolds, Stanley Warwick
Sack, Louise Caroline
Salkilld, Arthur Thomas
Simpson, George Nicolas
Skamp, Alice Beatrice
Skamp, Genevieve Callanan
Slade, S. H.
Spark, J. D. (Dean)
Spencer, Sydney C.
Stanley, Charles Herbert (Charlie)
Stanley, Herbert Bertie (Bert)
Stewart, Sidney Graham
Stuart, Captain Charles Browne
Taylor, A. S.
Thornton, Walter Clifford
Vile, William E. (Billy)
Walker, Charles Gilbert (Charlie)
Winpenny, F. J. (Joe)
Prisoner, unnamed, Aboriginal
Prisoner, unnamed, Malay