The S.S. Georgette, a two mast steamer was involved in two historic incidents in Western Australia its very short life. In 1876 the Georgette was involved in the chase of the Catalpa. The Catalpa, was a vessel harbouring a group of Fenian political prisoners who had made a daring escape from Fremantle prison.
Later that year the Georgette took on water and struck rocks at Calgardup Bay, on Redgate Beach. If it wasn’t for the brave efforts of Sam Isaacs and Grace Bussell many crew and passengers would have perished.
Brief History of the S.S. Georgette
The S.S. Georgette was built in Dumbarton, Scotland in 1872. The iron screw-steamer had two masts with a schooner rig, was 46.2m long, 6.9m wide, 3.4m deep and weighed over 200 ton. The ship had the capacity to carry about 460 tons.
In 1873 the Georgette was sold for 14,000 pounds to a West Australian buyer and arrived in Fremantle in September of the same year. The role of the Georgette was mainly carrying passengers and small trade from Fremantle to Albany.
Only a month into service she ran onto the Murray reef and had to be sent to Adelaide for repairs. She recommenced services on her return the following year.
The ship stayed out of relative trouble until 1876 when it became involved in an incident at Fremantle.
The Catalpa Incident
During this time a group of Fenian political prisoners had escaped from the Fremantle Gaol. An American whaling ship, Catalpa, anchored safely off the coast of Fremantle, in international waters, ready to assist in the escapees.
The Catalpa launched a small whaleboat to pick up the escapees waiting on shore. As the whaleboat headed back to the ship, the Georgette was requested by authorities to assist in intercepting the whaleboat. Along with the police cutter the Georgette attempted to catch the Fenians but were unsuccessful.
The following day the Captain of the Georgette and crew returned to the Catalpa demanding the return of the prisoners. The captain, George Anthony, denied any knowledge of having prisoners aboard and suggested the Georgette be on its way, as they were lying safely in international waters. With this the Georgette fired a warning shot from its 12 pounder (5kg) cannon. The Catalpa raised anchor and sailed off with the Georgette in hot pursuit.
The Georgette eventually had to abandon the chase after running low on fuel. It wasn’t long before the Georgette was once again in the news but this time for all the wrong reasons.
The Unfortunate Journey of S.S. Georgette
On the 29th of November, 1876, the SS Georgette left Fremantle carrying 50 passengers. The following day her hull was loaded with large Jarrah logs at Bunbury before setting off for Albany. It is believed the loading of the timber caused structural damage to the hull of the ship, which went unnoticed.
As the Georgette was rounding Cape Naturaliste, water was discovered in the bilge, but the ship’s pumps were ineffective. The Captain, John Godfrey, ordered the passengers and crew to start bailing the water out with buckets as he tried to sail the ship into safety.
Within a few hours the rising water had extinguished the engine’s fires, causing the ship to drift. Orders were given to man the lifeboats. Tragically, as the first of the lifeboats was lowered into the rough seas, a wave sent the lifeboat smashing into the ship’s side, virtually snapping it in two. Several crew members frantically tried to rescue the people thrown into the Ocean using the ship’s gig, but they could only save a few of the passengers. Seven people, two women and 5 children, perished. The Georgette slowly drifted into Calgardup Bay where it began to break up.
Brave Acts of Courage
As the drama was unfolding an Aboriginal farmhand, Sam Isaacs , who was walking along the coastline, noticed the SS Georgette in trouble and ran over 20km to the Wallcliffe homestead to get help. Grace Bussell , the 16 year old daughter of Alfred and Ellen Bussell, on hearing the news, gathered ropes and then saddled her horse before setting off with Sam Isaacs to the stricken vessel.
The two rode their horses down a cliff, into the ocean and through the surf to rescue passengers & crew. Grace and Sam urged the passengers to grab hold of their horses as they ferried them to shore. Many of the passengers and crew were rescued from their swamped or capsized life boats. Sam at some stage was sent to the stricken ship to rescue a man left behind. It took over four hours to get all the passengers to safety.
Grace then rode back to the homestead to get help. The survivors were taken to the Bussell’s property where they were given food and shelter.
Grace soon became known as “The Grace Darling of the West” after an English girl, also named Grace, who rescued several seamen during a storm. Grace was awarded a silver medal by the Royal Humane Society and presented with a gold watch by the Board of Trade. Sam Isaacs, whose tribal name was ‘Yebble’, was awarded a bronze medal for bravery and in 1897 was granted 100 acres of land at Ferndale, close to Wallcliffe.
The Captain of the ‘Georgette’, John Godfrey, was blamed for the shipwreck, though he was later found not guilty on five accounts of negligence.
The rock near where the Georgette rests is called Isaacs Rock in honour of Sam’s heroic deeds. At the Redgate carpark there is a Grace Bussell Memorial. On a calm day, if you look south of the carpark, about 90m out to sea, you can see the wreck of the SS Georgette lying in 5m of water.