Uncovering shipwrecks on Hunter beaches | Mike Scanlon

FATE TEMPTED: The stranded SS Allenwood on Birdie Beach at Munmorah, Lake Macquarie, in 1951. Photo: Newcastle University
FATE TEMPTED: The stranded SS Allenwood on Birdie Beach at Munmorah, Lake Macquarie, in 1951. Photo: Newcastle University

SHIFTING beach sands can conceal – and eventually reveal – much history.

No one is more aware of this than irate Stockton residents. Thousands of tonnes of sand has been stripped from their beachfront, even recently exposing a long-forgotten coastal tip and before that, some early colliery relics.

Without immediate action, the suburb’s long-standing erosion-crisis seems set to worsen. The Mitchell Street rockwall will soon again bear the brunt of huge waves in coming winter storm surges, trying to prevent more land being swallowed by the sea.

A 2014 coastal zone hazards study blamed Newcastle Harbour’s stone breakwaters for acting as barriers, altering currents, preventing sand from reaching the beach.

With so much beach erosion, it’s also a surprise that traces of past shipwrecks haven’t yet been uncovered. After all, over the past 200 years 50 or more vessels have been stranded on Stockton Bight beach.

One of the largest and most famous strandings was the 717-ton British sailing ship Berbice in June 1888. In bad weather, the ship’s crew tried to sail into Newcastle Harbour at night without a tug.

The Berbice was driven broadside by heavy seas and embedded in sand off Stockton near the surf area, where she rolled over (pictured) to become a total loss. Little remains today, although a large and intact 19th century mystery rudder surfaced on beach sands some years ago before being rescued and taken to Newcastle Museum for conservation.

The stout rudder was thought to be from the 53-metre Berbice.

The find was highly unusual as NSW marine archaeologists say such wrecked ships can often be later entombed by up to three metres of drifting sand, making wreck sites difficult to locate.

Another famous Stockton Beach wreck featured in historic photos was the British barque Durisdeer. She came to grief on the beach in December 1895. The vessel was never salvaged and her remains were visible at the water’s edge until the 1930s.

But more than 50 years later a part of it, possibly the sternpost covered in barnacles, stood up occasionally in the sand, according to late Stockton historian Terry Callen. 

In 1989, Callen said he was surprised that a beach trench about 100 metres long and excavated to 7.7metres (24ft) for a $3.3million stone seawall somehow failed to discover any wreck relics, especially from the Durisdeer.

A few years earlier, Callen confirmed seeing a wooden ship, buried for more than 100 years, way above the high tide mark. Thought to be an old sailing ship, it was reported buried up to 4.5metres (15ft) near the corner of Pitt and King streets, under Stockton Caravan Park.

Last voyage: The sailing ship Berbice rolled over on Stockton Beach in 1888.        
Photo: State Library of South Australia

Last voyage: The sailing ship Berbice rolled over on Stockton Beach in 1888. Photo: State Library of South Australia

One maritime observer said the ‘wreck’ could be bits of many, but Terry Callen said it seemed to be definitely one ship. It had been sighted briefly during a sand excavation there in the 1930s.

Then, about a decade ago, a ground penetrating radar search on site was conducted by Newcastle University, but revealed nothing. The high water table, however, meant radar readings were inconclusive.

Further up Newcastle Bight beach, storms sometimes uncover part of the hull of the coastal steamer Uralla wrecked near Morna Point in 1928.

But there’s another ‘mystery’ coastal wreck that occasionally emerges from the shifting sands to surprise beach goers south of Newcastle. She is the SS Allenwood, a twin-screw, wooden coastal steamer of almost 400 tons wrecked in September 1951 north of Norah Head, on Birdie Beach, in Munmorah National Park and then broken up in-situ.

She has an interesting history. 

Once smothered by sand, her skeletal remains were uncovered in 1967 and again in 2013 and maybe on other occasions not recorded. 

When she’s emerged from beneath sand, only scraps of iron and a line of heavy bottom hull timbers have been visible, but all clearly from the stranded ship

No was hurt when the 45-metre vessel ran aground on a sandbank in fog and lost a propeller  in 1951. Waves broke mercilessly over the coaster’s stern. Attempts to refloat her failed, so she was sold with much of her machinery salvaged and part of the wooden hulk burnt.

The SS Allenwood was built at Tuncurry for the North Coast timber trade in 1920. She could carry 120,000ft of timber with sufficient deck space to carry poles of up to 30metes long.

She was built for the firm of Allen Taylor and Co Ltd, which owned a famous timber mill at Winda Wopper, at Port Stephens, from 1917.   

Timber merchant, ship owner and politician, Taylor, later Sir Allen Taylor (1864-1940) was a self-made man of action. He had business interests on both and north and south coasts, once providing finance to build grain silos and improve dairy herds.

He also became Sydney’s Lord Mayor twice, in 1905-06 and 1909-12. His civic improvements program included widening of Oxford Street, Darlinghurst, and the creation of a square there which today bears his name.

In World War II, a desperate Royal Australian Navy then pressed Allenwood into service as an auxiliary minesweeper. Becoming HMAS Allenwood from 1941 to 1944, she was then returned to her owner in late 1946.

Interestingly, this same vessel was berthed at Kings Wharf in Newcastle Harbour when star shells and high explosive shells from a Japanese submarine rained down on the sleeping city on June 8, 1942.

The little ship seemed to have a charmed life for 30 years right up until she speared bow-first onto Birdie Beach in 1951.

She once lost two days trying to get out of shallow water at Winda Wopper, but that was nothing for the often hazardous coastal timber trade. Allenwood ran ashore at Camden Haven, near Laurieton in 1921, then struck the Coopernook Bridge in 1923 and then hit the breakwater at the Cape Hawke harbour entrance in 1924.

In 1948, the coaster was also damaged while crossing the bar at Camden Haven and had to be towed to Sydney by two trawlers. She then ran aground on rocks at Narooma in July 1950 before freeing herself by using ship-to-shore winching.

So, maybe there’s something in the old sailor superstition that it’s bad luck to change the name of a ship. 

According to the Manning River Times, when launched in 1921 she was christened the Allenby after General Allenby of World War I desert fame. Soon though the vessel’s name was changed to SS Allenwood, but why someone tempted fate is anyone’s guess.

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