In 1857, two clipper ships came to grief on rocks outside Sydney Heads, and as a result of public alarm, a smallish lighthouse – Hornby Light – was erected on the tip of Inner South Head.
It was a very dirty night on Thursday 20th August 1857. Some 81 days out of England, the clipper ship Dunbar, with 122 on board, was on only her second voyage to the Colony at Sydney. In hindsight, her Master, Captain Green, should have sought safety by laying well off the shore until daylight the next morning, but the ship tried to make it through the Heads into the sanctuary of Sydney Harbour.
The Dunbar was driven onto the rocks at the base of South Head by the fierce storm; here, the rugged rocks soon took full toll of the clipper, and she started to break up. All but one of her company perished. Flung into the raging sea, James Johnson, an Able Seaman on board, managed to reach a ledge on the rock face, and here he clung for 36 hours before rescue came on the morning of the 22nd August.
Sydney was stunned by this wreck and the extent of the tragedy, and many of the victims were unable to be identified. By the time the Coroner had made his report, it was not until 24th September that a mass funeral could be held, and the bodies properly interred at St Stephen’s Cemetery at Camperdown. Here a monument may be seen, erected to the memory of all those who perished that night in August of 1857.
A memorial plaque, remembering all who died, was also placed at the Gap, close to South Head, and near the jagged rocks that brought the end to this fine clipper ship (A watercolour image of the Wreck of the Clipper Dunbar, painted by S.T. Gill in 1857, is on display in the Mitchell Library in Sydney.).
A scant two months after the tragedy of the loss of 121 lives in the Dunbar, a second ship was wrecked close to North Head. Catherine Adamson, a 768 ton wooden general cargo and passenger ship, built in 1855 at Aberdeen, Scotland, was making her third run from England to Australia. On the night of 23rd October, also in 1857, whilst entering Sydney Heads, she lost steerage way and sank in 14 metres of water, a short distance from Inner North Head. Seventeen crew members and four passengers lost their lives.
From dives made on this wreck, a sextant, pewter mugs, pottery, spoons and forks have been recovered.
These two shipwrecks following so closely upon each other caused a public outcry, resulting in the creation of the Hornby Light, built on the tip of Inner South Head in 1858, seventy years after the arrival of the First Fleet. This light, very conspicuous with its red stripes, was the third lighthouse to be built in Australia (following Macquarie Light in 1818, and Nobby’s Light at Newcastle in 1854). It is 9m high, has an elevation of 22m, and a range of 22 kilometers. It was automated in 1933.
It sometimes takes a tragedy such as this loss of 142 lives to stir the authorities into action, and even today, nothing much has changed in that regard.