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Introduction                        (See also Newspaper Reports)

The Queen of Nations, a wooden clipper ship of 827 tons, was unceremoniously run aground on the morning of 31 May 1881 and became a total wreck. Remains of a vessel lying off Corrimal Beach north of Wollongong in NSW, have long been associated with the Queen of Nations. Concern for the safety of board riders in the area prompted the first archaeological surveys of the wreck site by Heritage Branch maritime archaeologists in April 1991. These and subsequent inspections have confirmed the popular identification of the site. The Queen of Nations was built at Aberdeen in 1861, by the acclaimed shipbuilder, Walter Hood. The vessel was launched on 25 April that year and sailed on the maiden voyage to Melbourne from London (The Age, 30 September 1861).

Historical background

While the Queen of Nations' maiden voyage was to Australia, the following three voyages (1862-4) were based firmly in the tea and silk trade with Shanghai. From 1865, the bulk of the vessel's voyages were re-directed to the Australian ports of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, a trade providing good returns for outward cargoes (Carnegie, 1979:47). A single voyage was made to New Zealand in 1874 (Brett, 1924: 246). The White Star Line began to dominate the Southern Trade and their dark green vessels, like the Queen of Nations, embellished with a gold stripe, white masts, spars and decks, became common sights in the Australian ports which they visited (Cornford, 1925:40). The Queen of Nations was regarded as a fast sailing vessel, Captain Mitchell could later exclaim that in all of his voyages on the Queen, he 'never saw but one vessel go past her'. (Carnegie, 1979: 62). Captain Thomas Mitchell commanded the Queen of Nations' first seven of some 22 voyages, during the years 1861~7. The succeeding captain, Archie Donald (1868-79) was lost overboard during a protracted 129-day return voyage to London in which the vessel was heavily damaged by storms and sea ice (Cromar, 1935:15). The Queen of Nations was already an old vessel when Captain Samuel Bache took command of the final two voyages in 1880 and 1881. Bache did not appear to match the previous masters in nautical skill and discipline (cf  Lloyd's Captains Register, Certificate of Competency Records), while the company bad prided itself on the quality and longevity of service of its commanders. The wrecking of the vessel by the drunken Bache in moderate weather conditions was a great embarrassment to the company, it being only their third loss in some thirty years (Sydney Morning Herald, 1 June 1881). 

The wreck event

At 2a.m. on Tuesday, 31 May 1881, while 97 days out from London, land was sighted and all sails set. The captain, making a fateful error, mistook the burning coal heaps of the Mount Keira Mine and the lights of Wollongong to be those of the entrance to Port Jackson and Sydney. At about half past six, just as day was breaking, the Queen of Nations bounced hard over a low reef outlying Corrimal Beach. The rudder was damaged, the wheel disintegrated and the mainmast crashed over board. The once proud vessel was left in an uncompromising position, high and dry near the shore, the distinctive Aberdeen bow directed hopefully out to sea (Sydney Morning Herald, 1 June 1881). The unusual circumstances leading to the disaster only then began to unfold. The Queen of Nations' sail maker lamented that they had had a very unpleasant voyage, so much so that he had not felt safe in a ship with such a captain. The carpenter stated that he had frequently seen the Captain the worst for drink during the passage and that he was staggering as the breakers were first sighted. Members of the crew noted that the Mate was also 'hopelessly drunk' at the time of the stranding and had hardly been seen since leaving Madeira. This shameful state of affairs was furthered by the actions of at least some of the crew. Harrington, a seaman, was so intoxicated that he could not walk in a straight line when landed on the shore. One seaman was drowned in the surf whilst attempting to leave the vessel (Sydney Morning Herald, 3 June 1881).

Contemporary salvage

A stevedore began salvage of the vessel on 9 June 1881, a sophisticated horse-drawn cradle and rope apparatus later aiding the recovery (Sydney Morning Herald, 13 June 1881). A significant amount of cargo was landed on the beach including oilmen's stores, printing paper, ironmongery, woolpacks and some 800 of approximately 2400 cases of the brandy. A portion of lower cargo was unrecoverable due to the rapid build-up of sand and water in the hold (Sydney Morning Herald, 27-28 June 1881).

The Queen of Nations broke up within a month, the scatter of cargo and debris attracting the attention of up to one thousand onlookers. The souveniring which took place led to several arrests and convictions on charges of stealing, keeping the local courts busy for several weeks following the disaster. Drunken arguments broke out on the beach as individual bottles of alcohol washed ashore (Illawarra Mercury, 5 July 1881). Spectators went to great lengths to retrieve the prized cargo, even hiding in nearby trees, swooping on the Customs' collection areas when they were left unattended (Illawarra Mercury, 4 February 1881).

The wreck was sold at auction on 29 June to a Sydney resident for ~ 10. Little salvage work appears to have been undertaken by the new owner past that date due to the rapid disintegration and settling of the site (Illawarra Mercury, 12 July 1881).

Modern salvage

The location of the wreck site was never forgotten, the adjacent Corrimal Beach Surf Life Saving Club has been aware of the remains since its founding in 1912 (pers. comm.~Mr George Critcher).

The site is known to have been exposed in 1938, 1946-7, 1968, 1976 and April-June 1991 coinciding with periods of scouring. A portion of the wreck was removed from the water by the local Wollongong Council in 1968 and 1976 for safety reasons as the remains were interfering with beach users (Illawarra Mercury, 12 January 1968; Illawarra Mercury, 5 November 1976). Some of the raised timbers were used in the construction of a cabin cruiser (Illawarra Mercury, 14 November 1984) and many early houses around the area are reputedly built with timber from the wreck. An unrecorded number of artefacts were raised during these periods. A dramatic rise in diver activity occurred prior to the Provisional Declaration of the site as an Historic Ship wreck. This activity had a disastrous impact on the integrity of the remains. Material raised is currently being traced so that it might be recorded.

Results of archaeological investigation

The wreck lies in an area of dynamic wave and surge action just beyond the surf zone, approximately
70 m from shore. The remains are orientated ENE-WSW in a depth of 3-5m on a gently shelving sand bottom within the outlying Bellambi Reef and adjacent Black Rocks (Towradgi Pt).


Isolated metal ribs (knees) had been observed protruding from the sand prior to the current inspection by Heritage Branch personnel. Intervening local storm action led to scouring of the site and revealed a more complex wreck structure. Substantial portions of the hull were now visible covering an area of approximately 60 x 15 m.

This presented an entirely different site than previously envisaged Fig. 4. A large section of the port hull was uncovered, with six ceiling timbers being exposed below surviving heavy cargo. The foot of the sternpost with sheathing was found together with a range of anchor chain, while the sternpost, associated deadwood and a gudgeon were located towards the shore and canted 40� to port. Iron knees and deck beam supports lay scattered over the remainder of the site. Major sections of lower iron masts and wooden mast sections were visible lying parallel to the vessel, also on the port side.

Unsalvaged cargo covered much of the structural remains. Beds of railway tracks, boiler tubes, miscellaneous ironmongery and barrels of cement were concentrated amidships. A quantity of worked cemetery stone including a marble cross , constitute a previously unrecorded portion of the cargo. Cases of bottled pickles, ceramic, including transfer-printed wares, tea cups and candlestick holders, assorted bottles, rubber shoes, coils of wire, piles of metal tap fittings, rolls of copper sheeting and isolated bottles of cognac were found within the wreck structure. 

Identification comments

The study of the material remains in association with the assembled historical documentation supports the popular identification of the site with the Queen of Nations. The site location, orientation and depth is consistent with contemporary Marine Board of Enquiry and newspaper accounts of the disaster. The hull construction, scant lings and fastenings correspond to the original building survey required by Lloyds. The surviving items of cargo match the ship's general manifest (Sydney Morning Herald, 1 June 1881), specifically the consignments of railway tracks, boiler tubes, wire, cement and alcohol. The variety of other artefacts scattered amongst the site constitute the general cargo carried. Packing cases marked LONDON- ABERDEEN further confirm the origin of the cargo and vessel. The wreck event was never forgotten by the locals, the Queen of Nations representing the only large sailing vessel lost on that part of the coast.


The Queen of Nations carried a broad range of goods apart from the cargo now visible on the sea bottom. Brandy formed a significant portion, some 5 100 gallons of Hennessy's case brandy (2 good shipments), and 1 800 gallons of bulk brandy were on board (Sydney Morning Herald, 1 June 1881). The wreckage included billiard tables, drugs, gas meters, clothing, candles, tins of fish, furniture, stationery, chemicals, curled hair, felt hats and oil. Other items included tin plates, pictures and nails (Sydney Morning Herald, 25 June 1881; 2 July 1881, Illawarra Mercury, 28 June 1881).

Cemetery Stone

A number of worked stone blocks were located towards the centre of the wreck site and appeared destined for use in cemeteries. They included a stone cross, pedestals and plinths, roughly carved from marble and granite. The consignment of cemetery stone was not recorded in any of the surviving historical sources relating to the final cargo. This group forms the only established shipment of cemetery stone associated with a shipwreck site in Australian waters to date.

While early quarries had been formed at Pyrmont, Bondi, Maroubra and Parramatta, worked stone was still imported in ships as ballast in the 1880s. The exact destination of the Queen of Nations' stone is not presently known, however some initial comments can be made. The shipment appears to have been ultimately destined for the local Sydney cemeteries, the known destination of the voyage. Of these, Rookwood Necropolis (Haslem's Creek) was regarded as the principal resting place of that period and witnessed a major expansion of the cemetery grounds in the same year as the stranding (Weston, 1989:10). A number of other prominent cemeteries existed in the Sydney region, including St Judes in Randwick, and those of Waverley and Gore Hill. All remain likely candidates for the shipment which appears to consist of monumental pieces.

The Queen of Nations' shipment arrived as white marble began swamping both city and country cemetery ies. The 1880s and 1890s saw the universal introduction of white marble headstones, sculptures and slabs. The marble may have originated in Italy, a popular source for the white stone at this period (Historic Houses Trust, 1981: 23). The remainder of the stone, probably granite, may have been quarried in Scotland, Australian granite not being used until the twentieth century (Weston, 1989: 56).

The shipment on board the Queen of Nations indicates that some of the stone was exported through the port of London direct to Sydney. It illustrates the great demand by the colonials for foreign stone and imported goods generally during this period.

The consignee of the cemetery stone is not recorded in the ship's manifest although a tentative hypothesis can be forwarded. The manifest records goods (not specified) assigned to J. Cunningham. This name matches that of a popular Sydney monumental mason, James Cunningham, who was operating at this time. James Cunningham specialised in marble and granite work and had a fondness for stone crosses as depicted in his business' advertisements. The presence of similar stone types and a cross on the wreck site may support this tentative association.


The Queen of Nations' figure-head reputedly survives at a property in Robertson, New South Wales. The 'figure-head' said to depict a lion cub, was allegedly removed from the wreck as the vessel broke apart in 1881. Originally painted white in the traditional manner of the White Star Lines' vessels (Cornford, 1925: 40), the 'figure head' has since been stripped to its original wood surface and has yet to be inspected and recorded.

(See also Newspaper Reports)


Special thanks go to David Nutley for his organisation of the field surveys, his help with this report and for his photographic coverage of the site. Mark Staniforth from the Australian National Maritime Museum assisted in the initial inspection and provided photographic support. A number of people have provided their time: Debbie Hardy, MAANSW; Michael Organ, Illawarra Historical Society and Museum; Les Griffith, Southern Commercial Divers; and George Critcher, Corrimal Beach Surf Life Saving Club Association. Independent researchers have freely volunteered their time and information-Ian Tulloch; Dennis Hayward; Roderick Glassford; Brian Rodges; Captain Peter King (UK) and William Neish (UK).

The Queen of Nations was provisionally declared an Historic Shipwreck under the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act, 1976 on 10 May 1991 and an Historic Shipwreck under Section 5 of the Act on 7 February 1992. At the time of writing, a management plan was being finalised for the site.

NSW Heritage Office logo.jpg (5720 bytes) AIMA logo

The above information comes from:
The Queen of Nations: one hundred and twelve years on, Timothy Smith. Bulletin of the Australian Institute for Maritime Archaeology, 16.2: 9-16,

Supplied by David Nutley, Co-ordinator Maritime Archaeology Program, NSW Heritage Office.

Visit the NSW Heritage Office and the Australian Institute for Maritime Archaeology by clicking on the icons.


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Carnegie, H., 1979, Harnessing the wind. Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museum Publications, Aberdeen.
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Cromar, J., 1935, Jock of the Islands: early days in the South Seas. London.
Department of Planning, 1991, Queen of Nations: case for provisional declaration as an Historic Shipwreck. New South         Wales Department of Planning (inter-departmental).
Department of Planning, 1991, Queen of Nations: wreck inspection report. New South Wales Department of Planning          (interdepartmental).
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Historic Houses Trust, 1981, In memoriam: cemeteries and tombstone art in New South Wales. Historic Houses Trust         of   New South Wales, Sydney.
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Weston, D., 1989, The sleeping city: the story of Rookwood Necropolis. Society of Australian Genealogists with Hale and Iremonger, Sydney.