People and Places
25/11/2020
Arsonist destroys Empress of the Seas

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To ensure that the ship could not be saved, the arsonist responsible for the destruction of the clipper Empress of the Seas disposed of the handles for the fire-pump. When the fire was first noticed about 4am on December 19, 1861, buckets of water were inadequate for the task of extinguishing it. The fire spread quickly, and though the ship was run aground off Point Nepean, it was destroyed. 

The Empress of the Seas was built in 1853 by Donald McKay at East Boston, US. McKay built many of the most famous clippers of the 1800s. The clipper ship was developed to satisfy the need for speedy passages, with passengers to the California gold rush, and in the tea trade between China and the UK. Because of their limited carrying capacity and the requirement for a large crew to manage their huge sails, they were expensive to operate and not suited to other trades. Several large clippers, which brought migrants to Melbourne during the 1800s, were built by McKay for the Black Ball Line, which owned the Empress of the Seas at the time of her loss. 

The ship was bought by the Black Ball Line in 1860 and made her first passage to Melbourne, arriving on November 25. The following year, now under charter to the White Star Line, she dropped anchor in Hobsons Bay on August 11, 76 days after leaving Liverpool. The demand for ships to carry miners to the newly announced gold rush in Otago, New Zealand, prompted White Star Line to send Empress of the Seas on a voyage there and back. 

Because about 20,000 men had left Melbourne for New Zealand in the previous six months, her captain, John T Bragg, had difficulty finding sufficient crew. However, the ship departed from Melbourne shorthanded on November 18 with 12 passengers and a cargo of wool, tallow, copper ore, wheat and 20,612 ounces of gold (worth about $50 million in 2020). Capt Bragg anchored off Queenscliff and was ashore seeking additional hands when the fire began. No lives were lost, all of the gold was recovered and some of the cargo was salvaged, and the remains of the hull are today a popular dive site.

BY MAURIE HUTCHINSON

President, Peninsula Ship Society

T: Maurie Hutchinson 9787 5780

E: mauriehutch@gmail.com

The Peninsula Ship Society cannot invite visitors to meetings until further notice. 

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