City of York was built under special survey in 1869 by J. Elder
and Company in Glasgow. It had two decks and three masts. It was registered
to the Ship City of York Company.
Under the command of Captain Jones, City of York sailed from San
Francisco for Fremantle on 13 April 1899 with a cargo of timber (743 444
feet) and 3 638 doors. The vessel made a record passage to Western Australia
and approached Rottnest Island late in the afternoon of 12 July. The night
turned stormy with blinding rain and a heavy sea (Cairns & Henderson,
1995:289). The pilot on the island sent up a flare asking if the vessel
required a pilot boat. The ship's captain thought that the flare came from
a pilot boat and acknowledged an acceptance of the offer. The lighthouse
keeper telephoned Thomson Bay and the flare up signalled that the pilot
The wreck event
On the vessel the captain hove to thinking the pilot boat was ahead and
the lead was cast three times, with five minutes between each cast indicating
24 metres (16 fathoms) and then 9 metres (5 fathoms). Soon after this, breakers
were seen ahead. The vesel could not be steered away from the reef and City
of York struck.
The sea started breaking over the vessel with force. Jones, believing
the vessel was in danger of breaking up ordered that the boats be got out.
Before this could happen it appeared that the mast was going to fall. Orders
were given for all crew to board the starboard boat but it was found to
be too small. Other crew got into the port boat and this capsized almost
immediately. Eleven crew including Captain Jones perished and eight men
reboarded City of York. One man was picked up by the first mate's
boat. The other lifeboat was also swamped soon after launching, but seven
men were able to reach the shore after about four hours. Two men made their
way to the lighthouse to raise the alarm.
On 13 July, the steam tender vessel Penguin left Fremantle for
Thomson Bay, followed by Captain Douglas in the tug Dunskey. He took
off eight survivors in three trips using his dinghy. The first newspaper
accounts of the wrecking did not appear until 14 July and it was soon apparent
that the same storm was responsible for the wreck of the Carlisle Castle
that same day.
The court of inquiry in Fremantle found that the wreck was caused by
the 'gross carelessness and want of judgement shown by the master' (cited
in Cairns & Henderson, 1995:291). Any potential for the lighthouse keeper's
signals being at fault was ignored by the inquiry. However, concern about
the case led to the setting up of a Joint Select Committee of both Houses
of Parliament to investigate the harbour and pilot services of the colony
which overturned the findings of the initial inquiry (Moynihan, 1988:39).
It was found that the equipment and instructions supplied to the Rottnest
Island lighthouse were completely inadequate and that the keeper gave misleading
signals through ignorance. The Captain was exonerated. The Ship City of
York Company instituted proceedings against the Crown for the recovery of
damages for the loss of the ship, alleging that it was due to misleading
lights. Settlement was eventually reached through the Privy Council and
the Company awarded £5 000 plus costs.
City of York was abandoned by the underwriters and there was general
agreement that there was no chance of saving the hull. Much of the timber
cargo was salvageable and was bought for £323/5/- by a Perth syndicate
who also bought the cargo from Carlisle Castle.
One anchor from the wreck site of the City of York was raised
on 15 November 1959 (by John Körner and the Blue Water Wanderers),
and this is mounted near Thomson Bay, Rottnest Island. Another has also
been raised and is displayed at the Perth Flying Squadron, Nedlands.
The site lies 200 metres offshore west of City of York Bay.
The wreck lies in 7 metres of water, with the bow facing to shore on
a reef bottom. It appears the vessel may have broken in two amidships with
two sections of deck framing off centre. Several sections stand proud of
the sea-bed. The hull has largely disintegrated with only the vessel's floors
and the stern section recognisable. Plating, frames and stringers are strewn
throughout the wreckage with one deck winch and sections of windlass the
only machinery apparent. The anchors that were removed from the site are
of the Pering's Improved type.
Statement of significance
This site is of historical significance as the remains of the vessel
whose loss led to the examination of the Rottnest Island communication system.
The aftermath of the tragedy led to a major upgrading of communications
using more modern technology.
The loss of City of York and Carlisle Castle had a significant
impact on the local community at Fremantle.The double tragedy prompted members
of the community to start a fund for the survivors of the wreckings. A monument
was erected at Fremantle cemetery in memory of the victims.
McCarthy, M., 1986, City of York, unpub. Wreck Inspection Report, Department of Maritime Archaeology, Western Australian Maritime Museum, No. 66.
Nayton, G., 1989, The City of York, Maritime Archaeological
Association of Western Australia Reports, December 1988-June 1989.
Moynihan, J., 1988, All the news in a flash: Rottnest communications
1829-1979, Telecom Australia and the Institute of Engineers, Australia, Western