Three Sinkings and Two Beachings

The Little Coastal Steamer that Never Gave Up 

In March 1908, shipping news reported that Messrs. E. D. Pike and Company had a vessel named the Raleigh under construction at their Bellinger River shipyard near Urunga, NSW.

Illalong at final resting place 5 klm south of Redhead ~ from the H.G.Skilton Collection.

She was 132ft long, 26ft beam, and 7ft 6in depth of hold (39 x 8 x 2.6 metres) - a shallow-drafted steam-powered wooden schooner intended for the river and coastal timber carriage trade. 

At that time the whole of the frames were up, and the planking was proceeding, with a launch date intended for June.

Above ~  From a monochrome photograph of the Boambee painted by Reginald Borsteen in 1909. Image supplied by the Australian National Maritime Museum

Typical design of the times, a schooner powered by steam. Schooners bore two masts with sails inline with the keel. Boambee lost a mast in Newcastle harbour, and the forward mast became its cargo crane

The Raleigh changed owners a year on, bought by the Manning River Steam Navigation Company to replace their S.S. Kincumber, that foundered in October 1908 with the loss of two lives, after striking the breakwater at the Manning River entrance. She was renamed the Boambee, and worked under that handle til the last year of life, when she became the Illalong.

She spent most of her life as the Boambee, plying NSW coastal rivers for timber, river gravel, and produce for the big smokes, bringing assorted cargoes for the bush by return.

 Image courtesy of the CLN Moore Family Postcards at UoN Flickr

The little wooden “screw” (propeller) steamer was destined for a life of sinkings, refloats, and relaunches that - 40 years after the laying of the keel - would bring her and her faulty compass, to the shores of Nine Mile Beach, 3 miles (5km) south of Redhead. There she perished, and joined a sadly endless parade of Hunter coastal shipwrecks. 

Heading to Newcastle from Sydney with a general cargo and brattice* cloth, the Illalong entered a thick haze and no shore lights were visible. After passing Norah Head the vessel apparently made close in shore running aground on Nine Mile Beach. Captain Elgar and his nine crew climbed down a ladder to the shore where, with no-one injured and no obvious damage to the ship, with food from the ship they ate breakfast on the beach. Police and the shipping company were informed by the captain, who had walked to John Darling Colliery, about 2 kms along a bush track from the wreck site and telephoned the authorities. 

A Court of Marine Enquiry conducted by Judge Markell determined, on Thursday, 13 May 1948, that the exact cause of the stranding was unknown. The enquiry cleared both the master, Captain Francis William Elgar, and the mate, Crawford William Howard, of any blame. The grounded vessel was inspected by the ship surveyor on 12th March. He concluded she could not be salvaged, and so was offered for sale as a wreck, excluding the brattice* cloth cargo.

An Outing at Nine Mile Beach

Amateur photographer Henry George Skilton (“HG”) visited the wreck of the Illalong on Easter Sunday, 28 March, 1948.

From left, Muriel, Bill, Alma, Bruce, and H.G. Photographed on H.G's Leica set to timer.

With him was wife Alma, youngster Bruce, and friends Muriel and Bill Crampton – and, of course, his trusty Leica camera, Weston light meter - plus one roll of Kodak Super XX film, another of Verichrome. While Bill fished and made up the campsite, and the girls chatted and tended to an active and excited Bruce, HG went for the Illalong to capture its iconic form and character from every possible angle. For which we are indeed grateful. HG’s images illustrate this small tribute to one of our coastal workhorses.

Bill and HG discuss fishing. Illalong visible far up the beach towards Redhead, from which it lay about 5kms south.

An Eventful Existence

The little steamboat - over four decades of service - survived a beaching, two sinkings, a collision, a really bad leak that became another sinking, and then, finally, a successful debut with maritime shipwreck history by running determinedly and permanently ashore.

One… the traditional beaching

At Tweed Heads in December 20, 1923, she was crossing the afternoon tide when a strong gale drove her onto Fingal surf beach, at the southern end of the entrance but the lucky ship was eventually refloated.

Above ~ The Inspection Team stops to pose...

Two… undignified affair

The second incident was an undignified affair in the Williams River, on 21 April, 1934.

At 4 o'clock on Saturdays morning, Viggers Ltd.'s steamer Boambee foundered in the Williams River at Clarencetown, opposite "Hollydene," the home of Mrs. S. T. Robards. Captain Bailey and the crew, who were, asleep, just had time to swim ashore. The Boambee was being used to convey gravel to Newcastle. It foundered on a sandbank on an even keel, and the decks were awash at low tide. The owners expect to be able to refloat her without any serious loss. The steamer is lying about 30 yards from the shore. Most of the crew motored to Newcastle at the week-end with out having suffered any ill-effects from the mishap.

Never get between a tabloid newspaper and an opportunity to dramatise. The Sydney Sun alarmed its readers (yet, disturbingly, they also sensed excitement rising within) with a same-day report (the tabloids usually printed later in the day for evening sales) of drama and heroism from the sleepy waters of an upstream township…

Boambee Sinks At Moorings CREW'S PERIL Four Men Caught In Bunks RIVER SENSATION NEWCASTLE, Saturday. FOUR members of the crew of the well-known coastal steamer, Boambee had an almost miraculous escape from drowning when the vessel sank in 20 feet of water in the Williams River, near Clarencetown early to-day. Awakened by the noise of falling machinery, as the vessel rolled on Its side before settling down, the seamen sprang from their bunks to find water pouring down the companion-way leading to the deck.

Attempting to force their way against the wall of water, they were swept off their feet and pinned against the opposite wall of the forecastle. It was not until the water was shoulder-high in their sleeping quarters. and only the bulwarks and the bridge of the vessel were showing above the water, that they were able to force their way out. The hero of the rescue was a Carrington youth, Jack Hill, who is employed as deck-boy and temporary cook. Trapped in Cabin One of the first to leave the forecastle, he with two other seamen, had scrambled along the bulwarks, and was huddled on the bows, when he realised that one of the men was still trapped below.

Making his wav to the companionway, he dived into the completely dark cabin to assist the remaining sailor, who was still struggling against the force of the water, to safety.”
  Etcetera, etcetera…

Three… double jeopardy

During the Second World War, Boambee sank at Hexham, on the Hunter River. She was raised, docked and refitted. Then a ship collided with the schooner as she berthed in Newcastle Harbour. She was so badly damaged, Lloyd’s paid in full as a total loss and the Boambee was removed from Lloyd’s register. One does suspect, however, that the accident-prone little wooden steamer might well have been the accused in this case. In May 1947 she was rebuilt and bought by the Hunter River Steamship Company for the Sydney Newcastle trade, and known all too briefly as the Illalong.


On the first voyage to Sydney from Newcastle with a cargo of timber she sprang a leak. The pumps were soon put into action but the water flooded the vessel so rapidly, the captain, Polglaze, was forced to return to the harbour.

Captain Polglaze said he attributed the sinking of tile vessel to failure of new planks to "take up.” Once the ship hit the steady swell the planks opened more and permitted water to flow in.”

Boambee sinks after limping back to Newcastle when the new planking failed to seal ~ Image by kind permission of Greg and Sylvia Ray

The story of this dramatic sinking at a wharf in Newcastle harbour is a great seafaring read, and reported in a unique photo essay by Greg and Silvia Ray at the PhotoTimeTunnel and in their book Newcastle, The Missing Years

Five… grounded

The Illalong left Sydney at 7.59 p.m. on Tuesday, 10 March 1948, with general cargo and brattice* cloth. The 236-ton vessel, valued at A£17,500 (in 1948), and her cargo were a total loss.


The Marine enquiry in May later that year was told there had been a consistent compass deviation on the steamship Illalong, on her northern course, Captain Elger, master of the ship. Counsel for the master and mate denied negligence on their part. The inquiry was conducted by Judge Markell. Captain Elger said the compass had been adjusted twice last year. 

When first adjusted, he said, the compass changed on the northern course. The compass was again adjusted, but the deviation was consistent and remained so. Bearings taken on various points along the coast confirmed the deviation. He said he had been at sea 26 years and had held a master's foreign-going certificate since 1934. He had been on the run 51 times. There was nothing on that night to indicate anything wrong with the compass.

The ship sometimes carried steel from Newcastle, but on those voyages was travelling south and the compass was not affected by the steel. Captain Gerrard (Maritime Services Board) said the vessel left Sydney at 7 p.m. on March 9 under the command of Captain Francis William Elger. Captain Elger said he took first watch, setting the ship on a safe course. Deviation on the course was 10 degrees easterly. At midnight, when he was relieved by the mate, the ship was on a safe course. It ran aground at 3.42 a.m. on March 10.

I asked the mate why the ship had diverted its course and he could give no explanation," said Captain Elger. "There was a slight moderate swell at the time.”

The ship's mate, Crawford William Henry Howard, of Elizabeth Bay, said he steered the same course as on previous runs. The course handed to him by Captain Elger at midnight on March 9 was north by half east. At Nora Head, he said, he altered the course from north-cast to north, the master having told him previously it was safe to do so. Captain Gerrard contended the evidence indicated that the Illalong left the safe course three miles off Nora Head and that the mate, with out reference to the master, altered course, which brought the ship to a position where she ran aground. The enquiry cleared both the master, Captain Francis William Elger, and the mate, Crawford William Howard, of any blame. The Newcastle Sun on the day of the sinking ran a photograph captioned:

The Illalong, formerly the Boambee, high and dry on the beach one and a half miles south of Redhead. The vessel lost its rudder after hitting a submerged rock.”

The distance might be correct (or hearsay on the day) but there was no mention of the rudder or rock in newspaper-reported findings of the enquiry above.


Newspaper reports after the beaching describe details of the salvage operation. March 12, 1948

Illalong For Sale As She Lies   The 236-ton wooden steamer, Illalong, is for sale as she lies. She is lying on Nine-mile Beach, on which she was beached on Wednesday morning while on passage from Sydney to Newcastle.   Tenders close at 5 p.m. to-day with the Newcastle and Hunter River Steamship Company Ltd., Sydney and Newcastle. Her cargo of brattice is not included in the tender.   It is anticipated that the ship will break up rapidly, owing to her exposed position.   A decision after a survey yesterday was that Illalong could not he salvaged.   The General Manager of the company (Mr. G. P. Sinclair) and the branch Manager (Mr. R. Murray) inspected the ship yesterday.

March 15, 1948
Salvage Begins on Illalong   Operating between high tides, workmen removed the steering gear a refrigerator and other equipment from the stranded steamer Illalong at the week-end. An attempt will be made this week to salvage the boiler, winch and other heavy gear. The Illalong (236 tons) was beached near Redhead after she had run aground last Wednesday, She was bought by Mr. H. Sutherland, a dealer, of Lawson-street, Hamilton, for £275.  

Mr. Sutherland said last night that the salvaged refrigerator was bought for £234 eight months ago, Difficulty was experienced in removing it and other heavy gear because the nearest road was 200 yards from the ship.
  He would try to hire a caterpillar tractor this week to move heavy equipment across the sand to the road.   The ship might not break up for a fortnight, but salvage work would proceed as fast as possible in case of damage by heavy seas. A constant stream of motorists visited the Illalong yesterday. The Illalong, formerly the Boambee, was owned by the Newcastle and Hunter River Steamship Company. She was going from Sydney to Newcastle when she went aground.
March 16, 1948
Illalong Cargo To Be Sold A cargo of 2,901 bales of brattice* cloth in the stranded steamer Illalong is expected to be sold by tender this week. The cloth was consigned to a warehouse for sale in Newcastle and to collieries in the South Maitland district for use in ventilating systems. Since the Illalong was beached near Redhead last Wednesday water has flooded her cargo at each rise of tide. Damage to the cloth by seawater is expected to make it use less in mines, but it should still be of value as packing Hessian, which is in short supply. Salvage operations on the Illalong were hampered by a high tide yesterday morning.

In the afternoon Mr. H. Sutherland, of Hamilton who bought the ship for £275, removed two truckloads of ship's equipment. Salvaged gear was taken across the sand to the road, 200 yards from the ship, in a four wheel-drive lorry. Mr. Sutherland said there appeared to be little risk of the Illalong breaking up now except in a violent storm, since sand piled up around the hull protected her from waves it high tide.

*A brattice is a division for ventilating coal mines, whereby hot air rises up one side of a shaft, while fresh air is drawn down the other side of the division. Cloth, typically Hessian at the time, was used for temporary barriers. 

March 18, 1948

No Replacement For Illalong   There was no prospect yet of relacing the coastal steamer Illalong, a spokesman for the Newcastle and Hunter River Steamship Company said yesterday.   The Illalong went ashore near Redhead a week ago on a run from Sydney to Newcastle. Before the beaching, parts of her engines were renewed to increase her speed and reduce coal consumption.  

The Secretary of .Newcastle Chamber of Commerce (Mr Nancarrow) said yesterday that if the Illalong was not replaced, her loss would make the shortage of ships for the Newcastle trade more acute. The Newcastle-Sydney service will be maintained by the Mulubinba and Kindur.
  Mr. H. Sutherland, a Hamilton dealer who bought the Illalong, said yesterday that he hoped to have much of the ship’s machinery removed by the end of the week.   Tenders "for the Illalong’s cargo of brattice cloth closed in Sydney yesterday.
March 19, 1948
Mr. H. Sutherland, the Hamilton dealer who bought the Illalong after she was beached at Redhead, got it for £275. He said yesterday he'd already made more than that on the fittings he's recovered. -Ie has also had an offer of £50 for the hull. The offer was made by a man who wants the deck teak and cabin linings.

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