Is this 'mystery' bell actually from the shipwreck Adolphe?

THE REAL DEAL?: A close-up of the mystery bell, date stamped 1827.

THE REAL DEAL?: A close-up of the mystery bell, date stamped 1827.

WE all seem to like collecting things in one shape or form.

In olden days, people might collect stamps, unusual beer cans, number plates from individual American states, kitchen recipes in scrapbooks, or maybe rare books. Our aunts often used to collect commemorative teaspoons to hang on the kitchen wall. Or was it colourful teapots, or tea towels, or other curios to put on display from recent travels?

I’ve been known to collect the occasional exotic paper knife, foreign masks and even a newspaper or magazine, or two or three.

My wife might call it hoarding, especially the papers. But I prefer to call my hobby “collecting”, and, to me, there’s a big difference.

Some other collectors are harder to define. Their collecting bug often has a lot of genuine history attached, especially if it involves strange, maritime objects, often hard to classify.

Into this category of potentially valuable artifacts from an historic point of view is the collection of someone I’ll called ‘Reg’.

Hailing from Port Stephens, Reg is now in his 80s. He has an impressive collection of items, mainly maritime, that he’s amassed over the years after rubbing shoulders with scuba divers, merchant ship captains, tugboat masters, salvage experts, cops and other collectors.        

He came to Weekender’s attention after an article on this page on June 2 featuring the French barque, Adolphe, which was wrecked inside the harbour entrance in late 1904.

Today the rusty bones the shipwreck are embedded on the rocks of the Stockton breakwater, which was built over a treacherous sand shoal once known as the Oyster Bank.

The Adolphe, her masts long since removed, lies impaled on the remains of several earlier ships beneath. The four-masted French ship was the last and biggest victim of the shipping hazard.

Reg contacted the Herald soon after my history article appeared, claiming he was the real owner of the Adolphe bell, which he said was in his home and not in Brisbane as the story stated.

“It’s got the company’s name embossed on it. It’s got the initials ‘R.D.C.’ embossed on it It’s historic, dated 1827 and nearly 200 years old. Come up and have a look at it,” he says.

Reg said he acquired the solid bell in good faith some time ago, from people unknown who assured him that it came off the famous Adolphe shipwreck.

“The ship’s bell was the heart and soul of any old sailing ship. And I’ve got the ship’s steering wheel as well. I’ve got them now both together where they belong,” Reg says.

“I’ve collected a lot of interesting items in the past, including the horn of the ship Sygna, once wrecked up on North Stockton Beach after the cyclone (in May 1974). Are you interested?”

Indeed I was, and arranged to meet Reg several weeks later at home to inspect his collection. And here’s where the problems started. With Newcastle’s Maritime Museum in Honeysuckle having recently wound up, and its artifacts and files put into storage, there was no easy way to verify any maritime claims.

Relics: Reg with a bell and ship’s wheel, which he acquired believing they were from the Adolphe shipwreck at Stockton in 1904. Pictures by Mike Scanlon

Relics: Reg with a bell and ship’s wheel, which he acquired believing they were from the Adolphe shipwreck at Stockton in 1904. Pictures by Mike Scanlon

For a start, there is an unbroken chain of ownership since the bell, with name attached, was discovered belonging to a New Zealand farmer in 1989. He said he’d had it since about 1976.

It was authenticated, and later came to Newcastle briefly. After the farmer died, the Adolphe bell ended up in Brisbane with one of his daughters.

The other problem is that there is no name attached to the mystery bell, and the ‘1827’ presumably refers to the ship’s construction date.

The Adolphe, however, wrecked in September 1904 at Newcastle, was only two years old when her sailing days abruptly ended. Adding to possible confusion is that this 1902 vessel was one of four vessels, all called Adolphe, and operated by the Bordes company of Dunkirk, France. No second vessel called Adolphe though is ever thought to have perished at the entrance to Newcastle Harbour.

But why so many ships called Adolphe? Adolphe Bordes was the eldest son of Antoine Dominque Bordes (1815-1883) whose company became the largest owner of sailing ships in France. These large sailing vessels were known as the French bounty ships and carried coal from Newcastle to South America.

Weekender examined the ‘Adolphe’ ship steering wheel, and concluded it seemed to be a 19th century ship’s helm with an attempt being once made to protect it from the sun, wind and rain by painting it with lacquer.

The Adolphe wrecked on Stockton breakwater was soon stripped of anything valuable, first by souvenir hunters, then by professional salvagers. Its nameplate and some chairs did eventually end up being given to the Newcastle Maritime Museum years ago.

“I did try to give my collection to the Maritime Museum, but nothing happened,” Reg says.

“I spoke to them and suggested where they might best display my items, like the anchors, but they weren’t interested. They said they would decide where my items, if donated, would go and that they were the experts, not me.” 

Another part of the problem of authenticating which item came from which wreck (except usually bells, which are marked) is that there are at least another 20 vessels in and around the Adolphe shipwreck. Some are sailing ships, two are old passenger steamers and 13 others were old mud punts scuttled in the path of the breakwater to give a solid foundation for rocks dumped later.

Then there are the numerous unidentified 19th century wrecks smothered in sand tombs on the bottom of Stockton Bight, parts of which are occasionally uncovered after storms.

One such vessel is the steamer King William the Fourth (not to be confused with the more famous William the Fourth). The KWTF was also wrecked on Newcastle’s dreaded Oyster Bank in 1839, but she was created in 1830, not 1827.

There would be keen interest in the background of any ship built in 1827 because, in that year, there were still 250 convicts employed in Newcastle, mostly in the coal mines.

It was also the year before the British-backed A.A.Company was granted a 31-year monopoly to mine coal in Newcastle and so revitalised the decaying, former prison settlement.

Reg’s standout items in his collection are the mystery bell and the big ship’s wheel, but it also includes various recovered portholes, some re-designed as small, innovative circular tables, to replica diving helmets, sextants, rusting anchors to bric-a-brac, including ship pulley-blocks and even some British ‘Bobby’ (police) helmets.

“I’m not saying how I got these items over the years, but at my age I don’t want any more publicity. I just want to see if many of these items could go to a new home, if someone besides the family are interested,” Reg says.