How a shipwreck became a Shepparton fashion disaster

By Shepparton News

The front page of the Shepparton News on September 11, 1891, had a display advertisement with a difference.
Shepparton fashion house, E. J. Daly and Co, used bold headings. ‘Terrible Shipwrecks’ was the first. ‘Announcement Extraordinary’ read the second.
The ad said: ‘‘We publicly apologise to the Ladies who were anxiously enquiring about the arrival of our summer shipments. You are all aware of the terrible catastrophes at sea. We could not control the delay.’’
The context for these delayed fashion garments was an extraordinary set of disasters.
Between March and September there had been no less than six shipwrecks in Victorian coastal waters.
Much of their cargo was not just late arriving; plenty had been washed away or had sunk to the bottom of Bass Strait.
The most recent calamity had been the previous Sunday, September 6.
The Fiji, a square-rigged vessel of 70 metres length and weighing 1400 tonnes, came unstuck close to the mouth of the Gellibrand River near Port Campbell on what is now called the ‘Shipwreck Coast’ of south-western Victoria.
The ship had sailed 106 days from Hamburg in Germany, and was headed for Melbourne.
The dramatic story of the loss of the Fiji is told in a new book called Mystery at Moonlight Head, the Fiji shipwreck disaster of 1891 by historian Alan McLean, of Kirwans Bridge, near Nagambie.
The book sets out the contemporary newspaper coverage of the shocking loss, which was not so surprising given the toll of wrecks that year.
If you heard of a book with the word ‘shipwreck’ and a man swimming ashore to raise the alarm, you might just wonder.
If you then learned of the ship’s crew swinging hand over hand on a rope connected to the base of a cliff trying to gain the shore, with 11 men drowning, it would start to become clearer.
By the time you heard reports of drunken pillage on the beach as the ship’s cargo of timber crates of bottled liquor washed ashore, and a local man rushing into the surf to try to save a drowning sailor, there would be little doubt.
That book would surely be on the fiction shelves. Not so.
The Melbourne-based press alleged that drunken looters were stepping over the bodies on the beach, even while the survivors were being revived.
These claims produced outrage from those who had risked their own lives in the rescue work from the beach and who knew that no such mayhem had occurred.
At least not until all the sailors had been taken to a nearby guesthouse to recover from their ordeal.
Then it was every bottle of brandy and gin for himself.
Eventually The Age and The Argus partly retracted their reports of outrageous behaviour, accepting that the salvaging and sampling of booze was confined to the days after all care had been applied.
The captain was found to be grossly negligent in his navigation by a Marine Court of Inquiry, and had his certificate suspended for just 12 months. No criminal charges arose.
The book’s research also explains how the community near Princetown and Port Campbell took care of the sailors washed ashore with literally no possessions.
Some were given petticoats to wear until men’s clothing could be found in the district.
Concerts were quickly organised to assist the survivors, to support the widows of those who had drowned, and to fund the building of a monument high on the cliff above the wreck where the seven recovered bodies were buried.
Alan McLean’s research has uncovered original documents, including a letter written by 16-year-old apprentice Louis Evans who survived the tragedy.
The letter, written to the orphaned lad’s grandfather in Wales just two days after the wreck, sets out his version of the events on board the ship and his own miraculous struggle to reach the beach.
A number of rescuers have descendants still living in the area where the tragedy occurred and they have brought forward old photos, family records and details of the disaster for inclusion in the book, which has 176 pages and includes 75 photographs.
The hull of the Fiji still lies where it settled, about 150m off the beach.
Divers collected many souvenir items from the sea floor before the wreck was protected by law in 1976.
The cliff-top monument remains where it was built, now surrounded by dense coastal scrub and virtually inaccessible.
A second tribute is a small anchor erected in an inverse position on the beach at the base of the cliff, but there is no plaque attached to explain its significance.
It is not known how long the ladies, sorry, Ladies, of Shepparton had to wait for the arrival of their summer fashions.
But it is safe to say that the men of the town did not have to wear petticoats.
To buy a copy of Mystery at Moonlight Head, phone the author on 0412 143 660 or email [email protected]