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Wreck of Clipper Still Yields Sad Relics  

(A recent newspaper extract believed to be from the Sydney Morning Herald)

On the night of October 23 1857, the 888 ton clipper ship Catherine Adamson was caught off the edge of North Head in an 80 mile per hour gale and sank. Since that day the wreck has slept in 5 fathoms of water, virtually undisturbed and rarely visited in more than 100 years.

In 1957 Ben Cropp examined the wreck site but it has been only recently that a regular visitor has explored what remains.

Stephen Wagstaff, a professional diver, underwater explore, adventurer and owner of a small maritime museum has made many dives to the Catherine Adamson bringing back crusty souvenirs of the once proud ship. Stephen whose file cabinet includes information of more than 4,000 Australian ship wrecks, tells the clipper's story.

Carrying gold from the minefields, wool and mail from the colonies, the Catherine Adamson had made a record run of 68 days to England in 1856. She was a true credit to her Captain and to her crew. This time she had made the journey in 87 days out from Falmouth. She was heavy with cargo and ready for fat profits when she anchored outside Sydney's headlands. In fact she was called the "booze barge". Because of her load of scotch whisky, gin, beer and other spirits.

Captain Smart and a crew of 34 with 8 passengers watched with assurance as the pilot, young John Hawkes boarded the Catherine to steer her into Sydney harbour. Two facts however troubled the Captain. A very strong southerly was blowing waves against North Heads treacherous rocks and just 2 months earlier in similar conditions another clipper ship, the Dunbar, with a 122 immigrants had been lost with all hands save one.

Pilot Hawkes argued with Captain Stewart that he had been successfully bringing in ships for more than 5 years. Rather than waiting for a really nasty gale to arrive and perhaps keep the Catherine out for more than a week, incurring enormous expense, the best move was to weigh anchor and sail immediately. To no avail the Captain argued that it seemed too dangerous. The young pilot's will prevailed and the ship headed for the entrance.

Then the troubles began. The winds increased to cyclone velocity and blew away the fore sail. The Captain again argued that they should return to sea before it was too late but the stubborn pilot was convinced of his judgement and headed the Captain towards Spring Cove for shelter. But increasing winds and waves were against them. Soon they found themselves within 15 metres of the breakers of North Head and the pilot and desperate Captain ordered both anchors released. But the anchors kept slipping and sliding.

The frantic passengers and crew could hear the breakers pounding against the rocks just a short distance away, but they could see nothing in the midnight darkness. They were hardly comforted when distress flares were fired into the night.

Meanwhile, the paddle steamer Williams homeward bound from the Hunter River pulled along side and offered help. The offer was at first not heard because arguments continued on board. Young Hawkes was for sending for help to the tug Washington achored at Watson's Bay and powerful enough to pull them out.

Paddle steamer Captain Creer shouted through his megaphone for the pilot to send him a rope. "You haven't got the power. Fetch a tug" Hawkes screamed back into the wind. "We're 20 horsepower stronger than any tug" the angry Creer shouted. "Send us a rope you fool". 

Still the arguing continued aboard the Adamson. Finally, a gig and towrope were dispatched but the rope broke. Then there was a second attempt and when the rope finally reached the paddlesteamer, the gig unattended smashed into the paddle wheels of the Williams.

Captain Creer sensed the need for immediate action and he shouted through his megaphone "Slip your cables".

Again the response was argument aboard the Catherine. No-one seemed capable of taking command, cutting the anchors free and allowing the Clipper to be towed off by the breaker line.

The time delay caused the Williams to swing broadside and in the confusion the towline was lost. At the same time the Catherine had drifted perilously close to the first line of breakers. The Williams tried to get closer but failed, so Captain Creer set off for Watson's Bay while Captain Stewart aboard the Catherine saw his last hopes disappear into the darkness.

The crew and passengers pleaded for a lifeboat. The request was granted and a small lifeboat filled with crew and passengers. But when it was only halfway down the side of the hull the beautiful Clipper ship struck the cliff. The lifeboat and crew hung dangerously midway between breakers and ship. "Cut the lines" some-one screamed. The line was cut just as the Captain, having leaped over the Clipper's gunwale landed with a plop in the stern of the lifeboat.

The last they all heard in the darkness was the cracking of the mizzen mast.

One hour later when a tug finally arrived the trim Catherine Adamson had been thoroughly wrecked and sunk. There was no sign of life except for 3 bulls and 2 horses which had escaped their pens on the deck of the Clipper. They stood drenched and bewildered at the foot of the cliff.

Flotsam and jetsam was everywhere and the news of the wreck brought pout dozens of local scavengers. It was Crown property as untaxed bounty so they hid everything in nearby bushes to avoid detection by the police. A few bodies were recovered, the rest were taken by sharks. The bodies, including the drowned pilot, were buried in a common grave along with the dead from the Dunbar at St Stephen's Church in Camperdown. Only 5 people had been saved, 1 of them being Captain Stewart.

Subsequently, the Captain tried to recover at least part of his cargo, but their was much argument over the salvage rights and eventually he received nothing.  By 8 to 5, a jury found him blameless for the disaster and the fault was attributed to the young dead pilot Hawkes.

Today the Catherine Adamson still holds some of its original cargo and it is these treasures which Stephen Wagstaff has brought back to Sydney.

"The water is always dirty from the sewerage" he said. "In fact sometimes you can barely see in front of himself". But with patience and curiosity we've found some excellent relics such a cannon, brass ship's spikes, solid brass weights, cracked pieces of a dinner service and all sorts of cow bells.

"Each has a story to tell, a bit sad and melancholy, a bit mysterious too, but every new find adds to the picture off that confusing scene of argument and uncertainty aboard the Catherine Adamson on that fateful night in 1857" Stephen said.


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