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Archives In Brief 67 - The Wreck of the Dunbar

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The wreck of the Dunbar, with the loss of 121 passengers and crew, is one of Australia's worst maritime disasters in peacetime. This AIB is based on the online display of the Dunbar.


On the night of Thursday 20 August 1857, the clipper Dunbar approached the heads of Sydney Harbour after a voyage of 81 days from England. Launched in 1853, the vessel was owned by Watercolour of the DunbarDuncan Dunbar, and was the sister ship of the Phoebe Dunbar, the Dunbar Castle and the Duncan Dunbar. It was under the command of Captain Green and was on its second voyage to Sydney. Despite the treacherous weather conditions on the night, Captain Green and his crew attempted to enter Sydney Harbour that evening, rather than wait until morning.

The Dunbar was driven into the reef at the foot of South Head and began to break up immediately. In the hours that followed, all but one of the passengers and crew perished. The sole survivor, able seaman James Johnson, clung to a ledge on the cliff face until he was rescued on the morning of 22 August, some 36 hours after the Dunbar ran aground.

When news of the wreck reached Sydney the following day, it immediately captured the attention of the public. In the days following, the media provided extensive coverage of the search for survivors and victims, and the progress of the inquest was chronicled daily. Residents were drawn to the scene for the morbid task of identifying friends, relatives and business associates. Still only a relatively small town, Sydney was staggered by the enormity and proximity of the tragedy.

A mass funeral for those who died and who, in most cases, could not be identified was held on 24 September. The interments took place at St. Stephen's Cemetery, Camperdown where there is still a monument to the victims.

A select list of sources

Attorney General & Justice

NRS 343, Registers of Coroner's inquests, 1857 [4/6613], Inquest Nos. 10511, 10560, 10561 The inquests do not name all those who lost their lives.
Reel 2921

Government (Colonial) Architect

NRS 4332, Files concerning the erection, repair, additions and alterations to public buildings, 1837-1912 [2/642A]
COD 393 available in the reading room
This file relates to the construction of the Dunbar Memorial in 1857-58 and includes a list of the passengers and crew who lost their lives.

Lands Department

NRS 7933, Letters received, 1856-66 [5/3598]
Some copies of letters may be found in COD 393

NRS 8297, Photographic prints of headstones, monuments and plans of Camperdown Cemetery, c.1951-58
This series includes two photographs of the Waller grave.

Further reading

  • Captain Pockley's report on the wreck of the ship Dunbar, in New South Wales Parliament, Votes and Proceedings, Vol 2, 1857, p. 427
  • Doolan, Shirley (comp.). A Short History of the Dunbar and the Catherine Adamson Memorial in St. Stephen's Cemetery, Newtown N.S.W., [Published by the author], 1993
  • 'Further particulars of the shipwreck at the Heads', Supplement to the Sydney Morning Herald, 22 August, 1857
  • Kepert, L.V. (ed.). History as it happened: The Sydney Morning Herald, 150 years of news and pictures from our oldest newspaper, Melbourne, Nelson, 1981
  • Loney, Jack. Australian Shipwrecks, Vol. 2, 1851-71, AH & AW Reed P/L, Sydney, 1980
  • Loney, Jack. Sea adventures and wrecks on the N.S.W. south coast. 3rd ed. Geelong, Marine History Publications, [1981?]
  • Mead, Tom. The fatal lights: two strange tragedies of the sea, Dolphin Books, Sydney, 1993?
  • Fryer, James. A narrative of the melancholy wreck of the Dunbar, Sydney, James Fryer, 1857. Held by the State Library of NSW and the Australian National Maritime Museum
  • Society of Australian Genealogists, St. Stephen's Church of England, Camperdown NSW monumental inscriptions, The Society, 1990. [Fiche M391-392] (Nos. 0254 Waller Family, 0519 The "Dunbar" Memorial, 1911 RAN Memorial)
  • Swain, Edward P. Journal of a voyage to Sydney in the ship Duncan Dunbar from London, 1864. Australian Maritime Museum MS 92793
  • Watercolour image of the wreck of the Dunbar, by S. T. Gill, 1857, Mitchell Library ZPXA 1983, f34
  • 'The Wreck of the Dunbar', The Empire, 10 September, 1857

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