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Wreck of the DUNBAR

The DUNBAR was built as a first class passenger and cargo carrier. Ship rigged and well fitted out the vessel was, at the time of launching, the largest timber vessel constructed in Sunderland, England. This was partly in response to the demand for ships to carry passengers to the Australian goldfields. The DUNBAR however was initially deployed as a troopship in the Crimean War and did not become involved in the Australian trade until 1856.

During the night of 20 August 1857, the ship was approaching the entrance to Port Jackson on its second trip. There were 59 crew and 63 passengers on board under command of Captain Green. Approaching the Heads in a violent storm, the crew burnt a blue light to attract a pilot. The ship was driven against the cliffs of South Head and rapidly broke apart. Only one out of 122 survived, seaman James Johnson, who managed to cling to the cliff face until rescued some 1-2 days later.

Bodies and wreckage filled the harbour. A funeral was held in Sydney for the dead who included several prominent residents and business people. There were seven hearses, four mourning coaches and a long procession of carriages. The city closed down for the ceremony and the streets lined with mourners while all flags flew at half mast across the city and harbour. The ceremony was held at St Stephens Cemetery in Newtown, the bodies of some victims being placed in a mass grave funded by the Government. A later enquiry blamed the disaster on insufficient navigational aids in the Harbour.

As a result of this loss and that of the ship CATHERINE ADAMSON at North Head some nine weeks later, the Government built the Hornby Light at the tip of South Head. James Johnson was eventually employed in Newcastle as the lighthouse keeper and on 12 July 1866, helped rescue the sole survivor from the CAWARRA disaster at Newcastle.

Memorial services for the victims of the Dunbar are still held annually at St Stephens Church.