The Pearl ferry disaster on the Brisbane River (13 February 1896)
TERRIBLE DISASTER - FERRY STEAMER SUNK - MANY LIVES LOST
“A terrible accident occurred on the river a short distance below Victoria Bridge last evening about five minutes past 5 o’clock. All traffic having been stopped on the bridge, the small steamer Pearl left the Queen’s Wharf for the Musgrave Wharf, South Brisbane. The vessel carried a large complement of passengers… On the journey across the Pearl steamed down the river a short distance in order to pass between the steamer Normanby and the Government steamer Lucinda. The Pearl, in avoiding the Normanby, was carried by the broadside on to the anchor chains of the Lucinda. The Pearl suddenly capsized and it is thought that she was almost cut in two by the force of the collision. In a minute or two after the first contact all the passengers were struggling in the water…. A number it is known, succeeded in scrambling up the anchor chains of the Lucinda, and others were rescued by boats… The accident was witness by a large crowd of people who were in the vicinity of Victoria Bridge and William-street at the time. A rush across was made by the bridge by hundreds of people, and as the news of the accident spread rapidly in South Brisbane and the city of people flocked in thousands towards the Bridge to gaze on the scene of the unfortunate occurrence.”
Brisbane Courier, Friday 14 February 1896, p.5.
February marks the anniversary of the capsizing and sinking of the Brisbane ferry Pearl, one of Australia's worst ferry disasters. Of the 80 plus passengers aboard it is believed that between 23 and 57 people perished on the afternoon of 13 February. Diving operations were undertaken to salvage bodies from the wreck. Authorities were also concerned that debris from the wreck might damage the piles under the Victoria Bridge. The hull was eventually raised from the bottom of the Brisbane River on 6 March. A Marine Board of Inquiry was convened to investigate the incident. The Inquiry found the Captain, James Chard had “displayed a want of skill in navigating his vessel.” Chard’s certificates and licences to pilot steamers was cancelled.
Below are several personal accounts from survivors/witnesses:
Interview with Captain Chard –
“I called out to everybody to grip something, because she was going down. One fellow near me called out “Why don’t you grip hold of something?” I replied, “I don’t want anything; I am going down with her.” Almost immediately afterward she sank. I went down with her. When she reached the bottom I could feel the bridge breaking under me between my feet… When I next came up…I could see two women struggling in the water…I looked round and saw a lifebuoy close to me. I seized it, and got the two women to hold on to it. Three of us were supported in this way, and drifted down to the drydock.” Sydney Morning Herald, 15 February 1896, p.9.
Interview with Mr Bell-Booth –
“I saw the sharp nose of the Government yacht cut almost in two, the steam escaping from the damaged boilers in all directions. I dived over the stern, to where I had dragged Mr Lamond out of harm’s way, and just missed the screw, which appeared to be still revolving. I took a long dive, and rose about twenty yards astern of the Lucinda. I then breasted the current, and attempted to save a woman floating towards me, but when she reached me I found she was quite dead. I then tried to save another woman, but she disappeared from sight before I reached her. I was now fatigued, and turning round swam downstream till I reached McGhie, Luya’s wharf, where I was picked up by a boat." The Queenslander, 22 February 1896, p.376
Interview with Mr and Mrs Jewell who were watching from onshore -
Mrs Jewell - "The shrieks and screams startled me, and made me feel sick and giddy; indeed, I feel so now, and never shall I forget to my dying day the sight of the poor creatures perishing before my very eyes. I called my husband to see if he could render any help.” Mr. Jewell said: “I rushed out of the workshop on hearing my wife scream out. I saw the accident; the shrieks were fearful for a moment. The boat was against the bows of the Lucinda. I saw a few people jump, and it seemed to me glide (they were so quick) from the Pearl to the Lucinda, then the boat gave a turn and slid on her side, the steam hissing. Dozens of people slipped off as she turned, and were swept under as she sank. To picture what happened is almost impossible; so quick was the scene that I could hardly realize that so dreadful a catastrophe had taken place. I saw about twenty persons, men, women, and children fighting with the debris in the rushing waters, and sinking from exhaustion.” Evening Observer, 4 February 1896
A special commemoration service was held on 12 February 2012 at the Queensland Maritime Museum. Descendants of those involved in the disaster were invited to attend and share their stories.
In 2011 Paul Seto wrote a book on the tragedy - "1896 "Pearl" Ferry capsizing near Victoria Bridge, Brisbane River : a compilation of newspaper research from National Library of Australia, supplemented by other sources".
Myles Sinnamon - Project Coordinator, State Library of Queensland