Mysterious Bell from Australia. From an American whaler?
August 13, 2013 at 6:59 am #12307
I wonder if anyone might be able to help with some questions about an old bell with a possibly quite complicated history. There is just a small chance that it might be from an unidentified American whaler from the 1800s, but it could also be from another ship or not even be a ship’s bell at all.
This old bell was supposedly found when a bulldozer was excavating a site for a building on the southern end of Dunwich, a town on North Stradbroke Island, in Queensland, near Brisbane, Australia, many decades ago. Just how it might have got there however takes a bit of explaining.
A book released in 2007, which we now know was often quite “sparing with the truth” about other finds, claims that the bell could be from the famous “Stradbroke Island Galleon”, ship wreckage in the “Eighteen Mile Swamp” of the island that had been known of since the late 1870s (and recently located). That author claimed that the president of the island’s historical society had told him it was “a ship’s bell”. Last week, I spoke to her and she said that she had told him that it was not. She had explained to him that it was the old bell of the island’s Benevolent Asylum. This was where destitute, mainly elderly people from Queensland went from 1866, when it officially opened, until 1946, when the asylum closed. The bulldozer later dug up the bell on land where the asylum used to be. There is a historic photo of the old men hurrying to the mess hall when the bell when was rung, which I’ve clipped in. The bell was also rung at 6am every morning and for the other meals or when beer was dispensed at Christmas. The lady from the historical society, who has lived on the island for almost 80 years, states that a man buried the bell somewhere on the 16 acre grounds when the asylum closed. But why would anyone do that with something valuable? To try and sell it later? The asylum was torn down and some buildings were moved in a matter of days. Lots of things “went missing”. What other reason would anyone have had to hide it? There were fears of a Japanese invasion only a few years before the asylum closed, which actually caused people to hide boats and so on, lest they fall into enemy hands. But would they have hidden a bell from the Japanese?
There were actually two asylum bells. The other, smaller one is located today at Sandgate, a mainland Brisbane suburb, where the patients of the island’s asylum were relocated to when it closed in 1946. They were sent to a former RAAF air force base which became the nursing home called Eventide, with the bell from the steamer “Otter”, which had taken supplies, visitors and patients to the island twice a week for many years until crew refused to sail her because she, like the patients, had become too old. She was “retired” the same year the patients were relocated, so the bell would have still been on the SS Otter until 1946 and they must have used another bell at the asylum before they moved. This bell? So at least one of the bells really did come from a ship. Had this larger bell originally also come from one, not too long after the asylum opened, but too long ago for anyone to remember? Nobody knows.
I went to see it today. The current owner is a very helpful island lady who has kindly allowed me to photograph it. She had already told me that there are no bell maker’s marks visible on it. A part of the top (possibly where the mark was) had been sheared off by the bulldozer. Exactly that part with the bell maker’s mark on it? Or was it common for such bells not to have had a bell maker’s mark at all? Would anyone be interested in seeing any more detailed photos of it? The lady (who prefers not to be named) told me that the Aboriginal people of the island have other stories as to where the bell came from. She is absolutely sure they are true, because her husband was the man who had found it. He was driving the bulldozer, not on the former asylum site, but halfway down the 40 km long island in a sand mining area. That was much closer to the site of the shipwreck that has now been located, deep inside the Eighteen Mile Swamp. She has given me the name of the supervisor of the sand mining crew that found it, who was actulaly there when it was found. I’m going to try and contact him about it and will post any news here if anyone is interested.
It might be of interest to people in America because it looks a bit like the bell of the beautifully restored whaling ship, the Charles W Morgan. There are at least some clues indicating that it could possibly have come from an American whaler. The first of these ships were seen in the area by explorer Matthew Flinders as early as 1802. There is also a theory however that the ship that is buried in the swamp was the wreck of an English barque that was pushed miles into the swamp from the south and almost a mile inland from the ocean beach by a tsunami verified to have occurred in May, 1877. Please let me know if anyone is interested in hearing more about the mystery of this mysterious broken bell or if you can tell us any more about it from the images provided (I have many others if you’d like to see them).
August 14, 2013 at 12:12 am #17585
Just a quick note – after looking at all the photos I made in detail, I found this area inside the bell, to one side of where there were deep marks made by the clapper, indicating that it had been used extensively for a long time. Maybe they could be inventory marks? I’ll be checking the State Archives for any clues. An island identity named Bonty Dickson left many papers at the island museum. He refers to a bell the locals called the “Liberty Bell”, because they thought it might have come from the US Liberty ship “Rufus King”, which ran around on a sand bar in the South Passage not too far from Dunwich (8km or so) in the war. It stayed there as a wreck for a long time. I’m not sure what happened to the bell. By the way, it appears to be bronze and it’s very heavy.
August 16, 2013 at 5:01 pm #17586Willie B. HerdParticipant
Hi Tom, an interesting story. There are too many possibilities to say for sure. The Museum is a good place to start. Maybe you can find pics of the Asylum bell or some one who actually has seen the bell to compare. Also, talking to the Mining Super is a good idea, and possibly he could show you the exact location where the bell was found….and compare to the known ship-wreck locations. Finding the missing piece would also be helpful, assuming there are some maker’s marks on it. (Maybe a miner found and discarded it 💡 ) Good luck in ‘digging’.
It certainly looks like a ship’s bell, IF you could find pics of the ships you mentioned, and/or other ships to compare it to would also be helpful.
August 16, 2013 at 10:23 pm #17587sunlanderParticipant
If it is the bell from the asylum it would not be from the Rufus King, which was wrecked in WWII (I am not sure of the exact date but will endeavour to locate it). It is presumed that the “asylum bell” had been in use for many years, but as the asylum closed in 1946, the “Rufus King bell” would have had a very short life there.
I am not well versed in the “Spanish galleon” story, but one never knows the possibilities. Various wrecks around the Australian coast have been said to have been of ancient Spanish / Portuguese origin, and speculation has run riot, with all sorts of claims being made when artifacts surface. Such claims cannot be substantiated. There are of course a number of well-documented Dutch wrecks off the Western Australian coast dating from the 1600s.
It is indeed unfortunate that a piece of the bell is missing, but never-the-less is a great relic. It will be great if the mystery of its origin can be solved.
It will be interesting to learn of further information you can dig up. Teddy.
August 17, 2013 at 1:50 am #17584
Hi and thanks for commenting,
Yes, I’m writing to the mining supervisor (his phone number isn’t listed, but I have his address), not to “check the story”of the lady who was kind enough to show me the bell, because I believe that she has been totally honest, but because we hope that he might be able to recall exactly where on the island the bell was found. I’m also not of the opinion that the bell could be that of the Rufus King, because the indentations made by the clapper inside the rim are quite deep and appear to indicate very enthusiastic use over quite a long time. The Rufus King ran aground on a sandbank in the South Channel in July, 1942, so the bell presumably couldn’t have been that old.
Another thing could be important in identifying it: the bell appears to show signs of exposure to fire, but only on one side. It’s a uniformly anthracite dark grey on that side, while the other, outer side shows many colors, a rich patina from ranging from bronze to green. The inside of the bell also shows this discoloration on the same side. Perhaps it was fire or an explosion that cracked the bell, and not the bulldozer? There never was a fire at the asylum. The building that bell was mounted next to was the “mess hall”, which was dismantled in 1946 and re-erected a short distance away and now serves as the Dunwich Community Hall. So no chance of the bell having been exposed to fire if it had been used at the mess hall’s original site.
A “suspect” for the wreck in the swamp is a ship that was traveling from Newcastle to Hong Kong with a load of 428 tons of coal. She was last seen leaving Newcastle in August, 1876. The tsunami occurred in May, 1877 and the Eastern Australian current could have carried the floating wreck to the island.
I’ve tried to find out what the letters “..A L” could mean. The “suspect” ship was sold at auction in Sydney in 1873 by Frazer and Co, a company that also owned a bonded warehouse and dabbled in shipping. Perhaps they had painted or chalked an inventory number? The name of the company that bought the ship was Anderson and Co. Does “..A L” mean “Anderson Lines? I’ve never found a reference to that company being referred to as a “Line” however, although it did own several ships.
I know, to prove the fire theory, a sample would need to be analyzed, but the bell’s owner might not like so much fuss.
Will keep you posted on what the mining supervisor says about the location. Another oldtimer from the island has told the lady at the museum I’d been talking to that he has some “metal cable” or rope he’d like to show me that he had found on the wreck. I’ll try and see him next time I can get over there. I’d like to post the image showing the location of the wreck in the swamp because it clearly shows a lot of metal inside one of the two areas of wreckage, but I can’t do that because it’s the property of a group I’m loosely associated with and I can’t breach their confidence. The wreck location matches reports from the 1890s and others perfectly. If the group decides to publish it anywhere, I’ll proved a link to the image. By the way, the name of the suspect ship is the “Burton Stather”, a 154 foot barque built at Wray’s shipyard in Lincolnshire in 1866, but I’m still not even sure the bell is from the wreck. There may even be two ships there, because there are two distinct areas of wreckage, more than 100 feet apart. Only a dig will tell, but most marine archaeologist don’t even believe the wreck exists because of so many fanciful tales told about it. The two areas of wreckage could be due to the tsunami having broken up a wreck from the ocean beach, or maybe one area is a newer wreck and who knows what the area with the metal parts in it could be.
August 17, 2013 at 3:49 am #17588
Sorry, forget to mention this is the previous post: Yes, a photo of the Asylum bell would be great, but so far I have not found one in the Island Museum or in the State Archives, the Cleveland Library or anywhere else. There are many references to it in old newspaper articles and documents, there are many photos of different parts of the Asylum, but not a single one of the bell. That’s frustrating… There is supposed to be a painting of the “suspect” ship however, somewhere in private hands in Australia. I’ve already tried the Art Gallery of New South Wales but they don’t have it listed in their private works lists. It was most likely painted by the son of William Anderson, the last owner of the ship, because has was an accomplished painter. I’ve attached a thumbnail of it, which was sent to me by the Burton Stather Heritage Group in England (too small for any details, sorry), so if anyone knows where this painting is, please let us know. Perhaps it’s detailed enough to show where the bell was mounted and roughly even the size of the bell.
Also, if anyone has a photo of the Asylum with the bell visible in it, please post it.
P.S. There are supposed to be a few other interesting old bells in the area, one used to summon the “Kanaka” slaves from the fields (no offence intended, but that was the old name that was used) (And yes, it was a bit of a shock to me too that there had been slaves in our area. I had no idea. They were apparently kept in a building at Ormiston House, which had stone walls, no windows and a hatch in the roof, down which they were lowered at night to prevent them from escaping. My God… Apparently the nuns there today had this building taken down, because it was an “unpleasant memory” and used the stone as paving). I’ll try and see where these other bells are. This has somehow got me hooked on bells.
August 18, 2013 at 10:35 pm #17589sunlanderParticipant
Hello again, Tom and friends,
I checked details of Rufus King. It was a new ship, bound for Brisbane with military equipment and medical supplies when it ran aground between North Stradbroke and Moreton Islands (off Brisbane) on 7 July 1942. It broke in half. The fore section was patched up and taken to the NewGuinea area where it was used as a floating workshop. The rear half remained on the sand and was still partly visible above the water until a few years ago. So Rufus King is ruled out as the origin of the benevolent asylum bell.
The photo of the men in your first photo, Tom, was taken about 1890, from my investigations.
Good luck with further research. Such tantalizing questions beg to be answered.
August 19, 2013 at 3:18 am #17590
Thanks for checking that. I’m still waiting to hear from the mining supervisor. As to “what does ..A L stand for?” (“Anderson Line?”, I’ve found references to the Western Australian Shipping Co, which folded in 1878, after being founded by another company and “Anderson”. Not sure if that could be the Anderson Co from Sydney that owned the “suspect” ship, Burton Stather. There are some private papers from the son of the owner in the NSW Archives, I wonder if they could tell us anything about whether or not Anderson had intended to form a shipping line (but then not proceeded – another ship he purchased, the Liberator, also sank in 1876)? The President of the Island Historical Society gets back this week, I wanted to talk to her again and see if she could describe the Asylum bell from memory, or better still, has any private photos of it. Even if the the mystery bell is definitely the Asylum bell, we don’t know where the Asylum got that bell and when. It could have been donated long ago after being found on a wreck. It’s also possible that what looks like exposure to fire occurred long before the bell came to the Asylum.
August 21, 2013 at 4:41 pm #17591Willie B. HerdParticipant
Tom, it looks like you have your work cut out for you! (I’ve also tried to research bells without any markings.) You might try searching for info on other ships wrecked in that area. An afterthought: finding the missing piece would determine the mounting method used for this bell, and could be helpful in determining its origin. I’m guessing this bell was made sometime in the 1800’s. Good luck! 😀
August 30, 2013 at 9:48 am #17592
Hi, Just thought I’d keep you updated with news on the bell. The supervisor of the mining crew that found it wrote back and I’ve now talked to him. According to him it was “about 30 years ago”, but he told me that the story told in the book that it had been “dug up by a bulldozer” was simply not true. He had been in charge of a group of four bulldozer drivers and had been “having a smoko” (that’s a break for a cigarette for those not familiar with Australian) “when one of the guys went into the bush for a **** when he came back with the bell”. The location is nowhere near that of the wreck which has been found in another part of the swamp. He also remembered seeing the remnants of “two masts poking up out of the swamp, about 18 feet apart and each about a meter high” not too far from this location. Masts that close together appear more likely to indicate a smaller schooner, but not a 155 foot barque. He assumed that the bell was related to island tales of a chest and a bell that had been found on this wreck and which some people had “tried to carry back to Dunwich”, but found to be too heavy and buried them in the bush. Hmmmm…. The gentleman said he would be happy to show me where the bell had been found and gave me rough indicators.
So it doesn’t appear to be likely that this bell could be from the wreck further down the swamp after all. So, if not from the Burton Stather, which is at least a possible candidate for that wreck (or wrecks, because there are actually two distinct areas of wreckage on the specialist image), which ship could it be from? Two masts, eighteen feet apart. I’ve tried turning those symbols around the other way, but they only appear to look like “..3 3” and “..A L” when looking from one direction. Perhaps more of the symbols could be revealed under a UV light or in a forensic examination. Does anyone have any ideas?
So, sorry, despite a tantalizing clue, still no solution as to the identity of the bell’s ship, only yet another mystery instead. This gentleman also confirmed that there had been an old coin and told me who owned it. The President of the Islands Historical Society told me this was a gold sovereign. This wasn’t the direction I had hoped to be heading in. Tales of a chest, a gold coin, yet another mystery ship? Despite all efforts to solve it, the legend of the wreck in the Eighteen Mile Swamp is well and truly still alive and kicking. On the subject of legends, and there is by the way no apparent connection whatsoever between the following and the wreck in the swamp, but in 1853, the now also legendary Madagascar sailed out of Port Phillip Bay bound for London with over 68,000 ounces of gold dust (today worth around $100,000,000) from the Australian goldfields and was never seen again. There were many strong wooden crates full of gold dust on board. Tales tell of a mutiny of the crew and the ship being set on fire, while the mutineers took to a lifeboat with some of the gold but capsized. Nobody knows where this supposedly occurred, some say, off the coast of South America. But, who really knows? Arrrggh, Pieces of eight, pieces of eight, me hearties… Please excuse my sudden frivolity, it’s just that silly tale of that chest that popped up again when I least expected it. That was ever so annoying, when I’d hoped to hear something else.
September 7, 2013 at 4:21 am #17593
I may have finally worked out what those symbols could be….
Who, apart from a bell maker, would have put them inside a bell? To mark the bell this way, one would have had to have looked inside and turned it up or over in order to make the marks. Who would have done that? Important for all ships at the time, when sold or chartered, was Lloyd’s A1 Certification. When a ship’s bell was checked as part of this certification, the condition of both bell and striker were checked and if found satisfactory, this was often noted inside the bell by writing or chalking the year of the survey and the certification type being issued, i.e.”A 1″. The bottom line could be an “A 1 . The year is possibly 1853 and not 1833. We know it’s a 19th century bell.
The year 1853 opens up a sinister possibility, if one considers that date in relation to a find made by stockman (Australian for cowboy) Fraser Brown. He had found a coin somewhere, some sources falsely state that it was a Spanish coin, but the President of the Islands Historical Society confirms that it was in fact a gold sovereign.
There is another old story from the island that Fraser found a bell and an old chest or box on another shipwreck while riding around the island. Who knows if it can be believed or not. I should point out that Fraser was a bit of a character, who liked hanging round at the Point Lookout Pub. He lived some distance away however, so he was famous for lying by the side of the East Coast road, pretending to be dead. When a vehicle stopped to see what had happened, he would suddenly jump up onto the back of it, thanking the driver for a ride… The kind of person one would be inclined to believe? I don’t know, but the coin really existed, but nobody can be sure where he found it. Had he taken it from the chest, if there really was a chest?
The other wreck did exist. The mining supervisor told me he had still been able to see the remnants of masts poking up out of the swamp, about a meter high and 18 feet apart. That indicates that it could have been a schooner.
In 1853, the Madagascar disappeared with 2 tons of gold dust on board and 9 boxes of gold sovereigns. Tales tell that she was burnt at sea with the over 100 passengers locked inside after the load had been transferred to a smaller vessel. Newspapers of the time tell of another robbery, which had been committed shortly before this. A coach with 8000 Pounds worth of gold had been held up. Three of those involved had been arrested on the ship before she sailed. But why risk a coach robbery for such a small amount if there had been plans to steal the ship’s cargo? To finance the purchase of a small vessel, such as a schooner, onto which the cargo would be transferred? A schooner which would have recently been A1 Certified by Lloyd’s, as was necessary at the time? Hmmm… The 30 cm bell would have been the forward mast bell. A smaller bell with the ships name on it would have been mounted at the stern. Perhaps it still lies in the swamp…
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