The shipwreck of the Ovalau

Shipwrecks around Lord Howe Island have been documented in a new section of our historical gallery, including the Ovalau, in 1903.

As part of our new History gallery display, there is a section on shipwrecks, with details of 17 wrecks, provided by local Clive Wilson. One of the prominent wrecks featured is that of the Ovalau which caught fire and sank off the island in October 1903.

The museum holds many items from this wreck, including the ship’s bell, recovered by locals Greg and Ellis Whitfield.

An interesting note has recently come our way containing some first-hand details of this event — 120 years ago this week.

In 1903, Alexander Oliver, the President of the NSW Land Appeal Court, was appointed as a Royal Commissioner to investigate land holding and use on Norfolk Island. He sailed from Sydney on 1 September 1903, on the steamer Ovalau.

On the return from Norfolk Island, the Ovalau caught fire and had to put in to Lord Howe Island, where she exploded and sank — an event perhaps still recalled at first hand by some Islanders.

While awaiting a relief ship, Oliver continued to write up his diary which is now held in the University of Sydney Archives. A few extracts of his diary are presented below.

The ship’s company had a special watercolour painted depicting the event and presented to the Island community; this now hangs in the Lord Howe Island Museum as part of the shipwrecks display.

Extracts from Marcus Oliver’s diary — 1903

18-19 October – Sunday & Monday
[return journey and after fire had broken out] Ship full speed for Lord Howe Island … and reached anchorage at 5.30 a.m. on Monday morning … This was in N.W. anchorage off Lagoon·. . . In meantime the Islanders’ boats had been sent for and towed off by launch and passengers’ luggage was being collected for shore, also provisions for passengers who had previously gone in batches with luggage etc. the whole of the crew were obliged by the fire to abandon ship. All came off in 3 boats in tow of launch. About half an hour after landing a great explosion took place with a great noise and masses of material were thrown up hundreds of feet. At Mrs Nicholls the castaways amuse themselves. Singing and dancing. About 40 of them sitting down to meals in two or three batches.

22 October-Thursday …
Picknicked under Banyan on Rabbit Island. Splendid grass on Island where are some goats and 2 buck rabbits.

27 October-Tuesday …
After lunch cricket at North end of Island. ‘Ovalau’ v Islanders. During an interval made presentation to Captain Todd. Address signed by all the Passengers and a purse of Sovs.(31) in a silk bag with his monogram.

28 October-Wednesday.
No steamer in sight … Flour and kerosene getting scarce. Nicholls has not yet managed to trap any doves for me . . . I paid a visit to … an old Creole [sic] who gave us some hop beer of her own make. Not bad.
(Note: the creole would have been Sarah Johnson, wife of Perry Johnson)

Almost all fruits flourish, especially orange, lemon, guava, banana, also maize, onions and potatoes and kumaras … Grass (none indigenous) couch and tussock or Cumberland grass, the latter poor stuff, but cattle seem to browse on it … Queer insect the land lobster looks like a huge scorpion but said to be quite harmless.

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