The SS Fitzroy was a familiar sight in Coffs Harbour. Owned by the Sydney based shipping firm Langley Brothers, a smaller competitor of the large North Coast Steam Navigation Company, the ship ran a regular passenger and general cargo route between Sydney and Coffs and return.
The Fitzroy was not a big ship. Built at Old Kilpatrick in Scotland in 1914, it was 51.87 metres long, had a breadth of 9.33 metres and had a gross tonnage of 623. However, it was important to the people of Coffs as a key way of getting to Sydney, as well as goods in and out.
The afternoon of Saturday 26 June 1921 threatened storms. The sixteen passengers along with luggage had been loaded onto the ship via wicker ware baskets. This was not uncommon. As late as the 1930s, North Coast students returning home from the Armidale Teachers’ College had similar experiences.
The ship sailed under the command of Captain James Colvin. A Woolgoolga man, Colvin was an experienced mariner who had been shipwrecked several times on the sometimes dangerous North Coat run. He knew the territory, but in those pre-weather broadcast days, you had to make the best judgement you could.
As the ship steamed south on Saturday night, it was struck by what was variously described as a gale or a cyclone. The deck cargo shifted and the ship listed, flooding the engine room. Power lost, the crew tried to launch the two life boats but could not because of the list.
There was no panic as the crew tried to help the passengers. One of the sailors seeing a stewardess on deck, told her to get a life belt. “I can’t”, she replied. “I have to get blankets for the passengers.”.
On board, the Captain tried to steer the ship for shore to beach it. As the ship sank, he was seen still at his post trying to save the vessel.
Passenger Herbert Ramsay was sucked down with the ship, but manager to get to a lifeboat that had broken free. “Everybody remained cool to the last”, he said. Ramsay saw the second boat with eight people aboard, but it was never seen again.
Able seaman Jansen was thrown into the water. He grabbed the stewardess, but she was swept away in the swirling waters. Jansen survived by swimming 14 miles to shore.
In the end, three crew members and one passenger were saved. It had been a horrendous experience.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 5 February 2014. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the columns are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014.