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Investigator – SS Bancoora June 2022


In June of 2022 the Investigator published this article by Brian Latter. Brian is a member and recent contributor to the magazine on the search for Benito Bonito’s buried treasure, and here he has another sea-faring story to share.

There are many shipwrecks along the Victorian coast, in the Geelong region and, particularly, at the Heads and along the South-west coast. However a stranding is a different ‘kettle of fish’. In Maritime Law, the action of a vessel running aground and being stuck fast in this predicament for a time, is known as stranding. Stranding may be accidental, or deliberately done to avoid a worse impending peril.

The Steam Ship (S.S.) Bancoora, Captain William Britten, was grounded on a wild Monday morning, 14 July 1891, near Bream Creek (now Breamlea) and became a stranding.


My interest in the S.S. Bancoora began in 1979 when I helped locate one of the anchors cast out to hold the ship in the surf. A couple of us, from the Barwon Grove divers’ group, nearly drowned. We got the anchors almost to the shore but gave up when the conditions became too dangerous.

The modus operandum (which we had used on other occasions) was to sink 44-gallon drums to the sea-bed and attach them to the anchor, then blow out the water with compressed air. One drum could lift about 440 pounds. Once we had enough drums attached to raise the anchor, it would leave the bottom for the surface. (On another dive, the two-ton ‘Earl of Charlemont’ anchor took 14 drums, as I recall.)

With the anchor from the S.S. Bancoora, the increasing surf breaking all over us eventually beat us. Our intention was to return but this never happened. The Barwon Grove divers’ exploits were written up in the Weekend Magazine section of the Herald-Sun in June 1979, in company with an article featuring the ‘Mary Rose’, King Henry VIII’s pride of the Fleet, which sank in the Solent, near Portsmouth, in 1545. Some years later, the raising of the S.S. Bancoora’s anchor was mentioned in the Geelong Advertiser as part of the ‘Murphy’s Lore’ historical series of articles by Noel Murphy.

The S.S. Bancoora, 2,880 tons, was built in 1881 for the British India Steam Navigation Company. The company was formed in 1856 as the Calcutta and Burmah Steam Navigation Company, becoming the British India Steam Navigation Company in 1862. At its height, the company owned more than 500 ships and managed a further 150 ships for other owners. The main shipping routes operated by the company were from Britain to India, Australia and east and south Africa. The company also serviced many neighboring countries from its Indian base. The company had a long history of service to the British and Indian Governments through trooping and other military contracts.

The S.S. Bancoora, on a voyage from Calcutta to Melbourne, via Adelaide, went ashore near Bream Creek, in poor conditions. She had encountered bad weather immediately after leaving Adelaide on Friday, 10 July. What was supposed to be the Cape Otway lighthouse was seen about midnight and the vessel held on her course, expecting to sight the Heads about daylight. The rain was falling in torrents, the weather was thick and hazy, and a tremendous sea was running. The vessel appears to have cruised about all Sunday looking in vain for the Heads or a pilot boat. When neither of these was sighted, a course was steered out to sea, and then about midnight on Sunday the course was changed towards the Heads, and two and a half hours later, she was ashore.

It happened on the watch of the second officer, Mr Sharp; the Captain was also on deck. Both the Captain and second officer saw no lights and thought the ship was some 40 miles southward of Bream Creek. One member of the crew was at the wheel and another was on the lookout but neither gave any warning cry or sighted any beacon light before the ship struck. Then the order was given to the engine-room, “full steam astern”, but the vessel was too heavily embedded in the sand. The powerful engines were helpless.

When daylight broke, the vessel lay no more than 200 yards from a sandy beach. She appeared to be stuck in the sand and able to withstand the shock of the waves. The second officer and several members of the crew went ashore in a boat, taking a line with them which was firmly fixed on the beach and formed a constant means of communication with the vessel.

After the ship struck, guns were fired and rockets were sent up at intervals. These attracted the attention of a Mr Milne, a farmer residing in the neighborhood, and he, being unable to reach the spot owing to a flooded Bream Creek and surrounding marshland, but seeing the masts of a ship lying close-in, rode into Geelong and gave the alarm.

A number of fishermen living about five miles away also saw the vessel ashore and made their way to her during the forenoon, rendering valuable assistance in getting passengers ashore. It was not until the evening that the passengers and officers landed. The only European lady on board was Mrs Rout, the wife of a sea captain. She, with her infant, were conveyed to Geelong. Several Asian women were landed and found refuge in the house of Mr Scott, a farmer living nearby.

By Monday afternoon, a number of ‘loafers’ were on the scene. They broke open and looted six boxes belonging to the passengers. They even tore the fittings out of the cradle in which Mrs Rout’s infant had slept. So malicious were the wreckers that they actually destroyed what they could not carry away, and thrust sand and gravel into the clothes in the passengers’ boxes. Trooper Martin was dispatched to the site and it was hoped that further depredations would be prevented. On the Tuesday, a large number of men gathered on the spot with dog-hooks and hatchets – plainly indicating their intention to make the most of the opportunities the stranding presented.

The ship’s cargo consisted of hemp, woolpacks, tea and other Indian goods in great variety. Cable lines were connected to the ship’s mast from the sand hills and cables were used, together with the ship’s winch and a donkey engine sent from Geelong, to transfer the cargo to the beach.

The cargo also included a young elephant, a rhinoceros, ‘sacred’ monkeys and ‘rare’ Asian cranes. These were a consignment of the Victorian Acclimatization Society for the Zoological Gardens in Melbourne. All ‘specimens’ were landed safely (although the rhino lived only for two days).

William Walker, one of Geelong’s early transport pioneers, transported the animals to Geelong. He was entertained by the crew and the Captain presented him with a small hand-bell.

The S.S. Bancoora was so open to view from the shore that she became a familiar and most fascinating object for thousands of onlookers, who travelled to Bream Creek in coaches, buggies and carts. The tracks leading to the beach were in a fearful condition and the traffic each day made them worse. Sightseers were charged 2/6 to cross paddocks to witness all the excitement. Many horses, vehicles and pedestrians became bogged in the mud and slush. On one occasion, eight horses were required to pull a Cobb & Co coach, conveying men to work on the stranded ship.

A few respectable onlookers were invited aboard by one of the ship’s officers. Tea was served and they were taken on a tour of the ship.

Several unsuccessful attempts were made with tugs to pull the ship into deeper water. Finally, after the removal of the cargo and the pumping out of water in the hold, success was achieved early on the afternoon of Sunday, 23 August – a most convenient time for the crowds of onlookers. The tugs, Eagle and Albatross, were employed on the job and loud cheers went up when the ship was got off the sand and limped towards Melbourne for repairs, pulled by both tugs.

The sea was very rough. The delicate task of navigating the crippled vessel through the Heads was given to Pilot Schutt. The ship’s rudder could not be used. The work of keeping the vessel in position behind the tugs was thereby rendered almost impossible, and the extra strain that frequently fell on the tow-ropes caused the one connected to the Eagle to break. When the accident happened, the tugs were in the most dangerous part of the Rip, and the ship almost went on the rocks. The Albatross managed to tow the ship out of her most dangerous position. And she was brought up the Bay without further incident.

The following day, the S.S. Bancoora was the centre of attention at Williamstown. She was lying at the Ann Street pier, with the steam pumps going. During the afternoon thousands of people streamed all over the ship.

A Marine Board of Inquiry, held afterwards, found Captain Britten guilty of careless navigation and suspended his certificate for four months. The decision seemed at odds with the evidence given. Experienced sea captains claimed that a light at the Eagle’s Nest (Airey’s Inlet) would have prevented the stranding.

The beach where the stranding occurred, is now named Bancoora Beach, after the vessel. The name originally came from India.

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