Where did the Adolphe's bell go?

Doomed ship: The Adolphe, stranded with her hull pierced in 1904, as the rescue lifeboat Victoria II edges closer to help. Photo montage: Bill Hillier

Doomed ship: The Adolphe, stranded with her hull pierced in 1904, as the rescue lifeboat Victoria II edges closer to help. Photo montage: Bill Hillier

DOES the name of the famous Newcastle shipwreck Adolphe ring a bell?

Now rusting away, the skeletal remains of the French barque has been an icon on the Stockton breakwater at the port entrance for almost 114 years.

It became a fixture on notorious sand shoals (the ‘Oyster Bank’) in September 30, 1904, after heavy waves pushed her onto the jagged remains of earlier shipwrecks. Ironically, the four-masted steel ship wasn’t supposed to come into harbour. It was meant to be diverted to Sydney. Sadly, the master of the Adolphe, Captain Joseph Layec, got the message too late.

Despite being towed by two tugs into what was supposed to be safe harbour, a towline snapped in the rough weather. A huge wave then lifted the Adolphe sideways to dump her hard onto wrecks nearby. Surely the rest is history. Or is there a lingering mystery?

In 1904, the Stockton breakwater was being built. It was extended to reach the Adolphe shipwreck two years later, in 1906. The rocky breakwall then kept going to be finally finished at its present length in 1912. The embedded shipwreck was, and remains, a visible reminder of the dangerous Oyster Bank. The vessel was its last victim and biggest shipwreck.

As the Adolphe continues to decay, many stories have been told about the tragedy of the ship’s loss on her maiden voyage to Australia. Among those tales is the story of the miraculous rescue of all 32 of the Adolphe’s crew thanks to the courageous members of the port’s heavy-duty lifeboat, Victoria II.

The dramatic rescue of all sailors by the crew of the giant, wooden rowboat so impressed the French government that it sent its representative to the Hunter to present a purse of sovereigns to the lifeboat crew in recognition of their heroism.

That same impressive lifeboat, unlike the Adolphe, has somehow survived and, until recently, was preserved inside the Newcastle Maritime Centre/Museum. 

But the closure of the city’s prized maritime museum in the world’s largest coal export port also revived a mystery. What happened to the French barque’s missing 40 kilogram bell – regarded as the heart and soul of the vessel? And how did it mysteriously disappear from the stranded ship never to be heard of again for 85 years?

Novocastrians with long memories will recall the windjammer’s bell was finally discovered in, all places, a New Zealand farm belonging to Dennis and Margaret Ruddell. That was in 1989.

The bell was briefly brought back to Newcastle on loan from north NZ. The move was spearhead by tenacious ship researcher Bill Hillier, then of Merewether, in early September 2004. Hillier organised the bell’s celebratory arrival in Newcastle, then weeks later, in a break from misty rain, the bell was rung loudly on Stockton breakwater directly above the Adolphe’s rusting bones. The ceremony coincided 100 years to the minute since the ship’s life ended at the same spot.     

Bell tolls for loss: Flashback to 2004 with Mary Loscocco, Alex Costa and Eric Pitt ringing the Adolphe’s bell on site for the first time in 100 years.

Bell tolls for loss: Flashback to 2004 with Mary Loscocco, Alex Costa and Eric Pitt ringing the Adolphe’s bell on site for the first time in 100 years.

Swansea’s Alex Costa and Mary Loscocco, of Tighes Hill, descendants of two members of the rescue lifeboat crew, stepped forward to jointly ring the ship’s bell watched by Stockton’s Eric Pitt, a descendant of one of the port’s original rocket brigade.

Bell owner Dennis Ruddell, 71, died three months later back home, in December 2004. He had described his September visit to Newcastle with the Adolphe bell as “the highlight of my life”.

In late 1989, I’d tracked the bell to Ruddell’s property north of Auckland after a tip-off from the Newcastle Maritime Museum. They’d been seeking news of the lost wooden figurehead of the old sailing ship. A former New Zealand man, Roy Taylor, of Fassifern, alerted the museum that he thought an old neighbour of his now had the bell after he saw it in grass near his house.

In a phone interview, Ruddell told me that he’d had the bell since about 1976.

“I found it on a previous property I had. How long it had been there would be anyone’s guess,” Ruddell had said.

All he knew was that the bell had originally been under a theatre, now demolished, in Auckland. However, the one person who might have known about who brought the bell to New Zealand from Newcastle had died.

Ruddell said the brass bell, when discovered on his Parua Bay farm, had been covered in red roof paint and had the Nazi symbol of the swastika as well as the word ‘Hitler’ on it.   

“But how it got to New Zealand is still a mystery,” Ruddell said.

Enter again Bill Hillier, who Weekender spoke to on the eve of the Newcastle Maritime Museum’s closure. What he revealed might solve how the ship’s bell mysteriously disappeared. For a long time, it was presumed the salvagers of the wrecked ship might have grabbed the bell, then lost it.

“I understand a woman, a Maori, visited the Newcastle Regional Museum and spoke to a representative at the time,” Hillier says.

“She claimed the bell had once been in her family for decades. Her story was that two sailors in a rowboat had slipped aboard the shipwreck looking for rum, which they found, incidentally.

“They also found the heavy bell which they took as well. Soon after their ship’s captain told them to dump their souvenir overboard, but they didn’t and it sailed around the Pacific in the ship’s hold for a few years, before being taken off at a New Zealand port.” 

Hillier believed that after the bell somehow ended up in the picture theatre it was painted with a swastika and the word ‘Hitler’ was added in a frenzy of anti-Nazi sentiment during World War II. It was likely people had confused the bell name, Adolphe, with Adolph Hitler.

In this same period, probably the 1940s, the bell was probably hidden for safekeeping to prevent it being broken up, or melted down.

Hillier said that after Dennis Ruddell’s death, the bell ended up in Brisbane and now belonged to one of his daughters. As far as our maritime museum was concerned, the precious windjammer relic was “the one item that got away”.

With the closure of the maritime museum, the Newcastle public for the moment has been sadly denied the opportunity to see some of the other rare Adolphe memorabilia. These include the famous French barque’s restored wooden nameplate, some of its fine cabin chairs and, of course, the giant rescue lifeboat, Victoria II.