Loch Ard shipwreck

Contemporary etching of the wrecking of Loch Ard

Loch Ard (1873-1878)

Loch Ard is probably the best known of all Victorian shipwrecks.

Loch Ard was bound for Melbourne loaded with passengers and cargo when it ran into a rocky reef at the base of Mutton Bird Island, near Port Campbell. Of the 54 crew members and passengers on board, only two survived: an apprentice, Tom Pearce and a young woman passenger, Eva Carmichael, who lost all of her family in the tragedy.

The wreck of Loch Ard still lies at the base of Mutton Bird Island and much of the cargo has been salvaged. Some was washed up into what is now known as Loch Ard Gorge following the shipwreck. Cargo and artefacts have also been illegally salvaged over the years.

One of the most unlikely pieces of cargo to have survived the shipwreck was a Minton porcelain peacock - one of only nine in the world. The peacock was destined for the Melbourne International Exhibition in 1880. It was well packed which no doubt gave it good protection during the violent storm which battered the stricken Loch Ard. Today, the Minton peacock can be seen at the Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum in Warrnambool.

The final voyage of Loch Ard

Loch Ard left England on March 2, 1878, under the command of Captain Gibbs, a newly married, 29 year old.

The ship carried a general cargo which reflected the affluence of Melbourne at the time. On board were straw hats, umbrella, perfumes, clay pipes, pianos, clocks, confectionary, linen and candles, as well as a heavier load of railway irons, cement, lead and copper. Loch Ard also had a crew of 37, and 17 passengers.

The voyage to Port Phillip was long but uneventful. At 3am on June 1, 1878, Captain Gibbs was expecting to see land and the passengers were becoming excited as they prepared to view their new homeland in the early morning. But Loch Ard was running into a fog which greatly reduced visibility. Captain Gibbs was becoming anxious as there was no sign of land or the Cape Otway lighthouse. At 4am the fog lifted. A man aloft announced that he could see breakers. The sheer cliffs of Victoria's west coast came into view, and Captain Gibbs realised that the ship was much closer to them than expected. He ordered as much sail to be set as time would permit and then attempted to steer the boat out to sea.

On coming head on into the wind, the ship lost momentum, the sails fell limp and Loch Ard's bow swung back. Gibbs then ordered the anchors to be released. The anchors sank some 50 fathoms - but did not hold. By this time Loch Ard was among the breakers, and the tall cliffs of Mutton Bird Island rose behind the ship. Just half a mile from the coast, the ship's bow was suddenly pulled around by the anchor. The captain tried to tack out to sea, but the ship struck a reef running out from Mutton Bird Island.

Waves broke over the ship and the top deck was loosened from the hull. The masts and rigging came crashing down knocking passengers and crew overboard. It took time to free the lifeboats and when one was finally launched, it crashed into the side of Loch Ard and capsized. Tom Pearce, who had launched the boat, managed to cling to its overturned hull and shelter beneath it. He drifted out to sea and then on the flood tide came into what is now known as Loch Ard Gorge. He swam to shore, bruised and dazed and found a cave in which to shelter.

Some of the crew stayed below deck to shelter from the falling rigging but drowned when the ship slipped off the reef into deeper water.

Eva Carmichael had raced onto deck to find out what was happening only to be confronted by towering cliffs looming above the stricken ship. In all the chaos, Captain Gibbs grabbed Eva and said, "if you are saved Eva, let my dear wife know that I died like a sailor". That was the last Eva Carmichael saw of the captain. She was swept off the ship by a huge wave.

Clinging to a spar, the young woman spent five hours in the water until she too was swept into Loch Ard Gorge. She saw Tom Pearce on a small rocky beach and yelled to attract his attention. He dived in and swam to the exhausted woman and dragged her to shore. He took her to the cave and broke open a case of brandy which had washed up on the beach. He opened a bottle to revive the unconscious woman.

A few hours later Tom scaled a cliff in search of help. He followed hoof prints and came by chance, upon two men from nearby Glenample Station three and a half miles away. In a state of exhaustion, he told the men of the tragedy. Tom returned to the gorge while the two men rode back to the station to get help. By the time they reached Loch Ard Gorge, it was cold and dark.

The two shipwreck survivors were taken to Glenample Station to recover. Eva stayed at the station for six weeks before returning to Ireland, this time by steamship.

In Melbourne, Tom Pearce received a hero's welcome. He was presented with the first gold medal of the Royal Humane Society of Victoria and a £1000 cheque from the Victorian Government. Concerts were performed to honour the young man's bravery and to raise money for those who lost family in the Loch Ard disaster. Everyone followed the story of Tom Pearce and Eva Carmichael with great interest and were disappointed when the two went their separate ways.

Ten days after the Loch Ard tragedy, salvage rights to the wreck were sold at auction for £2,120. Cargo valued at £3,000 was salvaged and placed on the beach, but most washed back into the sea.

Ship construction

Loch Ard belonged to the famous Loch Line which sailed many ships from England to Australia. In 1867 it was not possible to visit the waterfront in the Port of Melbourne without seeing one or more of the Loch Line vessels.

Built in Glasgow by Barclay, Curdle and Co. in 1873, the Loch Ard was a three-masted square rigged iron sailing ship. The ship measured 262ft 7" (79.87m) in length, 38ft (11.58m) in width, 23ft (7m) in depth and had a gross tonnage of 1693 tons. The Loch Ard's main mast measured a massive 150ft (45.7m) in height.

Loch Ard was built at a time when steamships were starting to make the journey from England to the colonies. Shipbuilders were forced to make their vessels as fast and comfortable as possible to attract more passengers.

Loch Ard made three trips to Australia and one trip to Calcutta before its final voyage which ended in tragedy near Port Campbell.

Victoria's historic shipwrecks

Despite Victoria being such a busy shipping region and although Bass Strait and the entrance to Port Phillip Bay presented many hazards to the unwary sailor, only 800 shipwrecks have occurred along the Victorian coast since 1797. Fewer than 200 of these wrecks have actually been found. All Australian shipwrecks over 75 years old are protected by state and Commonwealth historic shipwreck laws. Some younger wrecks may also be especially declared to be historic e.g. World War II wrecks.

Loch Ard was protected as a Historic Shipwreck on March 11, 1982, (regazetted on July 16, 1990), under the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act (1976). Any deliberate damage or interference to Loch Ard is an offence under the Act and offenders face tough penalties.

Diving on the wreck of Loch Ard

Loch Ard is one of the many historic shipwrecks included in Victoria's Underwater Shipwreck Discovery Trail. Qualified divers can explore the wrecks of old wooden clippers, iron steamships and cargo and passenger vessels located along the coast and in Port Phillip Bay. Some of these wreck dives are suitable for beginners while other wrecks require the skills and experience of advanced divers.

Relics from the wreck of Loch Ard

A collection of largely confiscated artefacts can be seen at the Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum, Warrnambool. The Port Campbell Visitor Information Centre has further relics and a display about the wreck. Visitors to the area can see the wreck locality at Loch Ard Gorge and visit Glenample Homestead which is now a museum.

Dive information sheet (PDF 706 KB)