Schomberg shipwreck

salvaged chalice

Schomberg (1855-1855)

Designing and building ships has always been a competitive business, especially in the mid-19th century. At that time, the race was on to design ships able to sail from England to Australia in record breaking time.

Schomberg, the most famous of the Black Ball Lines' fleet of passenger ships was said to be the most perfect clipper ship ever built. It was designed and built in Aberdeen to beat the very fast clippers of North American designer Donald McKay.

When James Baines, owner of the Black Ball Line launched Schomberg he said, "by the grace of god, this ship under the capable command of Captain Forbes will break the record he has already made". Captain Forbes, who was drunk at the time, replied, "with or without the help of god I'll make the trip in 60 days". However, at the equator Schomberg experienced a number of windless days which slowed the journey down considerably.

Unfortunately Captain Forbes never had another chance to put Schomberg through its paces. On the same voyage to Australia, only a day's sailing from Port Phillip Bay, Schomberg stranded and wrecked on a sand spit at Peterborough.

The final voyage of Schomberg

Schomberg left Liverpool on October 6, 1885, with 430 passengers on board and 3,000 tons of cargo comprising iron rails and equipment for the Geelong Railway and the construction of a bridge over the Yarra to connect Melbourne with Hawthorn. Its cargo also included flour, though it's not known whether this was for the journey, or for the colony.

Sailing was slow but uneventful. On the 27th day out from port, Captain Forbes sighted a Liverpool-bound clipper called Vision. Forbes and a boat load of passengers rowed across to Vision and enjoyed an evening of dancing on the poop. When the two boats parted, Vision took mail from the Schomberg's passengers back to England.

On Christmas Eve, some 78 days out of Liverpool, the vessel made landfall near Cape Bridgewater. The next day Moonlight Head was sighted. The ship was sailing with strong south-easterly wind and had to tack several times but made little progress. In the evening the wind dropped and the ship was again heading in the direction of Moonlight Head. The gentle breeze made it difficult for the vessel to turn about and the ship was carried in through the breakers and came to a grinding halt on a sand spit.

Neither the sand spit nor the currents in the area were marked on Captain Forbes' charts. The sails were left up in case the wind strengthened and the ship freed itself from the sand bar. However, the sails were eventually brought down and the anchor let go.

During the night, a lifeboat was launched to locate a safe spot to land the passengers. The boat returned and the crew advised Captain Forbes to wait until daybreak because heavy surf could easily overturn the small lifeboats. At dawn, the ship's Chief Officer saw the smoke of a distant steamer, SS Queen. He sounded the signal guns to draw the steamship's attention to the plight of Schomberg.

SS Queen, which was bound for Melbourne, approached Schomberg and managed to take all passengers on board. Another steamer was sent by the Black Ball Line's agent in Melbourne to collect passenger's baggage. Various steamers assisted with the unloading of cargo from Schomberg however when the weather changed for the worse, the task became impossible. Cargo was strewn over the beach and police had to patrol the area for looters.

The wreck and cargo were finally sold to a local firm of merchants however they did nothing to salvage what remained on board and Schomberg was again sold to a Melbourne businessman and two seafarers. Two of the partners drowned as they attempted to row to Schomberg. After that, all salvage attempts were abandoned.

Scandal on board Schomberg

Back in Melbourne, following passengers' complaints, an inquiry into the disaster and the formal trial of Captain Forbes took place. Forbes, also known as Captain "Bully" Forbes, was accused of neglect of duty. Some passengers told tales of dangerous sailing and of Forbes strutting around Schomberg with a loaded revolver. All of the officers on board Schomberg were accused of being ungentlemanly and immoral. Rumours spread of "half naked women" emerging from Captain Forbes' cabin at all hours of the night.

Forbes was apparently playing cards with two female passengers when Schomberg ran aground. By the time he came up on deck and gave orders it was too late. Captain Forbes was finally acquitted on the grounds that there was not enough evidence to show he had not used every precaution necessary to save his ship. Following his acquittal there was a public outcry.

Ship construction

No expense was spared in building Schomberg. The ship was designed to be the most comfortable vessel to sail to Melbourne and cost £43,103 to build.

The frame of Schomberg was made of British oak with layers of Scottish larch fitted diagonally over the frame. An outer layer of red pine was reinforced with tar. This design was called the diagonal principle and was said to be similar to the design of Queen Victoria's new yacht. This design feature was found on pieces of hull washed up on the coast of New Zealand and these are thought to be from the wreck of Schomberg.

The three masted ship was heavily sparred and carried a massive 16,000 square yards of canvas sail.

Special features of Schomberg included ventilation ducts to the lower decks and port holes. Unfortunately the port holes leaked badly at sea. First class passengers were treated to lavish accommodation including a dining saloon, smoking room, a library and bathrooms.

Schomberg was a large ship measuring 288ft (87.8m) in length, 45 ft (13.7m) in breadth, 29.2ft (8.9m) in depth at the hold. It had a gross tonnage of 2284 tons.

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.

Schomberg 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 Schomberg is an offence under the Act and offenders face tough penalties.

Relics from the wreck of Schomberg

Some of the artefacts salvaged from the wreck of Schomberg including belt buckles, knives and candle sticks can be seen at the Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum. Schomberg is also part of the Shipwreck Coast Historic Shipwreck Trail - a land based tour along the Great Ocean Road. Copies of an information leaflet about the Historic Shipwreck Trail are available from visitor information centres along the Great Ocean Road and through Heritage Victoria.

Diving on the wreck of Schomberg

Schomberg 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.

Dive information sheet (PDF 604 KB)