Clonmel, the three-masted wooden paddle steamer was one of the first steam powered vessels on the Australian coast. Built in Birkenhead, England in 1836, Clonmel had two 110 horsepower engines and was 47 m long and around 12 m wide. After plying in British Island for around 15months Clonmel was sold to its new Sydney owners and was despatched under Captain Tollervey. She arrived in Sydney on 5th October 1940. Clonmel ran aground at 3:00am on 2nd January 1841 at Corner Inlet in Victoria on its second voyage in Australia. The wreck of Clonmel is located at one of the most treacherous stretches of water in Australia, the Port Albert Bar. This small bar has been responsible for more than 20 shipwrecks. The Channel at the entrance to Port Albert is constantly changing, periodically burying or revealing Clonmel.
In the early years of Port Phillip settlement, intercolonial traffic between Sydney, Melbourne and Launceston were carried out irregularly by sailing ships. They were weather dependent and took several days in wet and comfortable conditions. This was a business opportunity spotted by Sydney entrepreneur Edye Manning, who bought the 500ton paddle steamer Clonmel . Clonmel was a luxurious vessel and offered 24-hour trip to Sydney from Melbourne at the same cost as its competitors which were weather dependent and unreliable.
The excitement the arrival of Clonmel created is evident from the news report published in The Sydney Monitor and Commercial Advertiser on Sat 19 Dec 1840. It is as follows, ‘The Inhabitants of Australia Felix have at last another source whereon to congratulate themselves, namely, the establishment of a steam vessel to trade between Port Phillip, Launceston, and Sydney. This noble vessel, the ” Clonmel,” whose arrival here has been so anxiously looked for, was first seen about six o’clock on Saturday morning last, and at about eight. she took up her berth alongside the ” Samuel Cunard” store-ship. Upon enquiry as to the cause of her detention in Sydney so far beyond the time specified for her leaving, we learn that her owners finding that some part of her machinery would require alteration owing to the smallness of the coal, determined on at once putting it into effective condition rather than run any risk which might endanger the character of the vessel, and therefore kept her until perfectly satisfied that she was all right. “
On her first voyage Clonmel left Sydney at 6 p.m. on 1 December 1840, after anchoring at Port Phillip with a scheduled stop at Batemans Bay on the way reached Launceston and returned. On her return trip from Sydney on 16th December, the steamer ran short of coal and had to stay put at Batemans Bay for two days and arrived at Sydney on 22nd December. Though there was a glitch, Clonmel’s fist voyage only left happy customers, evident from a letter to the editors of Sydney Herald on 23rd December 1840. It goes as follows, ‘This being the first voyage of the Clonmel we are anxious to intimate to the public our admiration of her as a sea-boat, and first-class steamer, both of which have been fully proved by her successful contention against a gale of three days duration, which enabled us to reach Bateman’s Bay in safety. We have no doubt under your judicious management, the Clonmel will obtain the support, she is justly entitled to.’’
But its second voyage was disastrous. At 3am on 2nd January 1841, The Clonmel wrecked in a sandbar at the entrance to what we know as Port Albert. The captain of the ship, Captain Tollervey, new to Australian waters steered too close to the shore and the ship became so badly stuck in the sand that it was impossible to free it. No one was injured and the survivors landed at what later became known as Clonmel Island.
The passengers and crew on the ship consisted of 75 individuals. Two of the passengers and five of the crew later endured a dangerous 63-hour trip around Wilson’s Promontory to Port Phillip Heads to get help. The remaining survivors began to explore the exciting land they had discovered by accident and this resulted in three new settlements; Port Albert, Tarraville and Alberton.
When the boat reached within a mile of Port Phillip Head, strong ebb tides began creating so much of ripple, and they didn’t think it prudent to sail against it and remained afloat for nearly four hours. That is when to their inexpressible relief they found the cutter ‘Sisters’. ‘Sisters’ were returning from the wreck of ‘Isabella’ where she had been dispatched for the purpose of bringing up passengers. The crew of ‘Sisters’ spotted a small boat with a red flag hoisted at a distance. Sisters took the boat in their tow and the passengers on board. The heroic passengers at the boat reported the situation of Clonmel to Captain Roach of the ‘Sisters’. The Sisters anchored at Williamstown.
The name of one of the heroic passengers in the boat was Mr D.C Simpson. Sydney Herald on 20th January published Simpson’s account of what happened after Clonmel was wrecked. Here we reproduce it for the sole reason – History best to be heard from the mouth of a witness.
‘’ A little after 3am on 2nd January all the passengers were startled by the ship striking heavily. On reaching the deck, I discovered breakers a-head; the captain, who had been on deck during the whole of the middle watch, giving orders to back a-stern, and doing all in his power to rescue the ship from her perilous situation. Finding that the engines were of no avail in backing her off the bank on which we now found she had struck, orders were given to throw overboard cargo to lighten her, but without the desired effect, the vessel still surging higher upon the reef. The anchors were then let go, when, after a few more bumps, she swung head to wind, taking the ground with her stern, and bedding herself, with the fall of the tide upon the sand, rolling hard and striking occasionally. During the whole of this trying scene the most exemplary conduct was shown by the crew in obeying the orders of the captain and officers. Daylight had now made its appearance, and we found ourselves on shore on a sand spit at the entrance of Corner Inlet, about half a mile from the beach, between which and the vessel a heavy surf was rolling.
It is necessary here to remark, that the course steered and the distance run, would not have warranted any person in believing us so near the shore, as we actually found ourselves. The sea was smooth, the wind fair, and the vessel going at the rate of at least ten knots an hour, and it was impossible for any navigator to have calculated upon such an inlet carrying a vessel, under the circumstances above alluded to, 20 or 30 miles to leeward out of her course, in eighteen hours. Capt. Tollervey’s conduct had hitherto been that of a careful and watchful commander; he was on deck during the whole of the middle watch, which he himself kept, anxiously on the lookout and was on the paddle-box at the time the vessel struck, but the night proving misty, nothing could be seen beyond the length of the vessel. Had it pleased providence to have retarded our voyage by half an hour, the calamitous event would have been avoided; but it was otherwise ordained. Capt. T., on finding all attempts to get the vessel off by running kedges and warps out, throwing overboard cargo, unavailing, and a strong sea rising with the floodtide, turned his attention to the safety of the passengers and crew.
After several trips by the whale-boats first, and assisted by the quarter boats afterwards, every soul was landed in safety by 2 p.m., the captain being the last to leave the vessel. A sufficiency of sails, awnings, and lumber was brought on shore to rig out tents for all hands; and everybody set to work to make an encampment; in a short time the ladies and females were comfortably housed, having beds placed for them in a weather proof tent; the male passengers and crew were equally accommodated by means of spare sails and awnings brought from the ship, and we found ourselves at sundown as well provided for as we under the circumstances could desire.’’
The cutters slitters and will watch were dispatched from Williamstown. One Good result of the Clonmel’s wreck was the discovery of a navigable entrance to Gippsland and the discovery of Port Albert. Later on their return, Captain Lewis of the Sisters reported favourably on the inlet as a Port for Gippsland. The recently formed Gippsland Company was set out to locate a suitable port from which to export cattle. They charted ‘The Singapore’ to explore the inlet to find a suitable place for settlement. They named the Tarra and Albert Rivers and choose a location where they unloaded the stock and materials. The area is now known as Seabank or the Old Port. The Old Port was abandoned later for the new town at Port Albert. Port Albert allowed direct access to the heart of Gippsland avoiding swamps, mountains and thick forests, which limited the exploration of the resource rich land of Gippsland. All traffic to Gippsland passed through this harbour on those years.
But the establishment of direct road network to Melbourne, construction of railway line from Melbourne to Sale and the development of lake navigation spelt doom for Port Albert in later years.
Clonmel is historically significant for Victoria and for that reason, a 50 metre radius Protected Zone (prohibited entry without a permit from Heritage Victoria) has been declared around the position of the boiler situated at latitude 38 deg 44’44″S, longitude 146 deg 40′ 37″E. ( From Heritage Victoria Website)
The Courier (Hobart, Tas. : 1840 – 1859) Tue 19 Jan 1841/ Page 2 / LOSS OF THE CLONMEL.
The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957) / Sat 8 Mar 1919 / Page 6 / STORY OF THE CLONMEL.
The Sydney Herald (NSW : 1831 – 1842) / Wed 23 Dec 1840 / Page 2 / To Captain J. S. Tollervey, Commander of the Steam Ship Clonmel.
Launceston Courier (Tas. : 1840 – 1843)/ Mon 18 Jan 1841 / Page 2 / WRECK OF THE CLONMEL STEAM SHIP.
The Austral-Asiatic Review, Tasmanian and Australian Advertiser (Hobart Town, Tas. : 1837 – 1844)/ Tue 2 Feb 1841 / Page 4 / THE “CLONMEL.”
Australasian Chronicle (Sydney, NSW : 1839 – 1843) / Thu 24 Dec 1840 / Page 2 / RETURN OF THE CLONMEL.
The Sydney Herald (NSW : 1831 – 1842) / Sat 19 Dec 1840 / Page 2 / INTER-COLONIAL STEAM NAVIGATION.