With the loss of 89 lives, mostly due to cold and exposure, it is one of the worst maritime disasters in Australian history. The Admella disaster remains the greatest loss of life in the history of European settlement in South Australia. Of the 113 on board there were only 24 survivors, including only one female, Bridget Ledwith. Of the 89 dead, 14 were children. The 150th anniversary of the disaster will be marked in August 2009 by events across the south east of South Australia and at Portland, Victoria.
In 39 voyages between Adelaide and Melbourne there had never been cause for alarm aboard the Admella. Never any need for life boats or life belts. The vessel's only captain, Hugh McEwan was a cautious and capable master mariner. Admella had been constructed with water-tight bulkheads, riveted to the hull. These were designed as a special safety feature, but were ultimately the cause of a catastrophic break up of the ship into three exposed sections in the first 15 minutes of the disaster.
At four o'clock next morning, when the vessel was approaching the Cape Northumberland light, the captain believed himself to be far from land. In reality, however, the ship was close to a dangerous reef at, probably from a current which carried the vessel shorewards.
Suddenly she grated on a reef and, keeling over, lay broadside on to the heavy seas. An effort was made to lower the boats, but two of them were smashed and the third broke adrift. The swell lifted her further on to the reef, impelling her with such force that she lay on the summit of the ridge, with her starboard side high out of the water. In less than fifteen minutes the Admella broke into three parts and several passengers were washed overboard. A few rockets were discovered and fired in the hope of attracting the attention of lighthouse-keepers at Cape Northumberland, 25 km away, but they were damp and failed to ignite correctly. Meanwhile those on the wreck turned their eyes to seaward for assistance.
Daylight revealed a deserted coastline about 1 km away interrupted by raging surf, and plans were being formulated for an attempt to reach shore when a steamer was seen in the distance. Signals were hurriedly erected on the remaining mast and rigging, and the ship's bell rung, but the vessel, Admella's sister ship Havilah, passed without seeing them. On the second day the sea was calmer and two seamen, John Leach and Robert Knapman, succeeded in reaching the shore with the assistance of a raft. Exhausted, they hurried through the night to alert Cape Northumberland lighthouse.
The lighthouse was without telegraph and so the lighthouse keeper, a Mr. Germain, had to ride to Mount Gambier to inform authorities in Adelaide 450 km north west and Portland 100 km east. The Corio left from Adelaide and the Ladybird from Portland but, due to poor information, both rescue boats had difficulty locating the now desperate Admella.
Meanwhile the wreck was battered by the heavy swell. Captain McEwan shared out what little food remained and had to prevent survivors from drinking salt water, which had begun to take the lives of those who drank it. Others, exhausted by their ordeal, simply slipped into the sea to their death. In the words of one lifeboat captain they were:
more like statues than human beings; their eyes fixed, their lips black, for want of water, and their limbs bleached white and swollen through exposure to the relentless surf.
Over the next few days, several rescue attempts were made by the Corio and Ladybird rescue boats. Rockets were fired to try to get lines aboard but mountainous seas and severe winter storms drove the rescuers back and lives were lost as the lifeboats were swamped. A further attempt was made to launch one of Admella's own lifeboats, which had washed ashore, but it too was unsuccessful. By Saturday, one full week after the wreck, the Admella's lifeboat and the Corio's boat were launched from the beach and managed to crash through the surf and reach the wreck. Eventually three people made it onto one boat, which then capsized, drowning one man.
The Portland lifeboat which had been towed to the scene by the Ladybird had made an earlier attempt to reach the wreck but was driven back by the raging seas. Now it was finally successful in coming alongside the wreck and the remaining 19 survivors jumped and fell into the boat. They were transferred to the Ladybird which returned to Portland. The lifeboat is now housed in the Portland Maritime Museum.
As news of the disaster reached Adelaide and Melbourne, interest in the wreck had reached fever pitch; telegraph offices throughout the colonies were crowded, while newspapers printed extra editions only to see them sold out immediately upon release. In Adelaide, the news of the disaster brought hundreds of people to the telegraph office to hear the story as it unfolded; businesses closed and both Houses of Parliament adjourned.
For a few weeks crews who had participated in the rescue were treated as heroes, especially Captain Greig and the crew of the Ladybird. In the community, businesses and individuals raised money for the Admella Shipwreck Reward and Relief Fund for rescuers and survivors. Following the commission of inquiry into the wreck of the Admella, the loss was attributed to the effects of a current which pushed the vessel off course, although investigations were also held into a magnetic disturbance in the area which may have affected the compasses on iron hulled ships. The commission found that a contributing factor had been the way in which the watertight bulkheads had been inserted - the holes for the hundreds of rivets had weakened the metal. The inquest also resulted in the installation of the telegraph at Cape Northumberland and in 1881 a lighthouse was built at Cape Banks. Interestingly, nearly 100 years later a much larger ship The Corio came to grief on the very same reef and sank but with all onboard rescued.
The Admella wreck is protected under the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 and the South Australian Historic Shipwrecks Act 1981. Some salvage work has been conducted on the wreck over the decades, but due to its treacherous location diving is difficult in all but the calmest of seas.
In the region between the Victorian border and the River Murray mouth 101 vessels have been wrecked and 218 lives lost.