The largest passenger liner to ever sink off the coast of Australia went down near Augusta.
In 1907, the White Star Line’s S.S. Pericles was launched. It was a 158m long, four-masted twin-screw steamer with room for 500 passengers (100 first class, 400 third class) plus 150 crew. At the time it was considered the most opulent luxury liner servicing Australia.
But on 31 March 1910 the Pericles was on it’s 4th voyage, passing Cape Leeuwin, when it hit an unchartered rock. This tore a gash in the hull and the liner began to sink bow first into the water, completely sinking within two and a half hours. Thankfully, all passengers and crew were able to get into the dozen lifeboats, and as conditions were fair at the time, they were able to all make it to shore, guided by a signal fire that had been lit by the Cape Leeuwin lighthouse keeper.
Although there was no trace of the ship after it sank, over the following days tons of goods from the ship washed up on shore. From as far away as Wonnerup, south west families came down in droves, bringing horses and carts to gather up what they could find. The exact location of the wreck was left unknown for almost half a century until it was located and partially salvaged in the 1950’s.
For some time after the ship went down, there was much speculation about which rock the ship actually hit. It was an important question because if it could be shown that liner took an unsafe course around the cape, then White Star Line would be responsible, thereby releasing Lloyd’s Insurance from a half million pounds insurance bill. A formal hearing was convened, where officers testified that they had indeed set a safe course and were nowhere near the South West Breakers. The navy even dispatched a ship to finding the “uncharted rock”, but nothing was found. The hearing concluded that the SS Pericles did indeed hit an uncharted pinnacle of rock, which most likely snapped off, thereby ensuring future safe passage for other vessels to sail past the cape in that area.
Some of the survivors settled in WA, with some returning to Melbourne courtesy of the White Star Line. Most passengers lost everything. Some went on to London, but later returned to settle in WA, being overwhelmed by residents’ generosity of providing clothes and board in their time of need.
Today the wreck of the Pericles lies in sight of the Cape Leeuwin lighthouse, in only 34 metres of water, but is generally inaccessible to the recreational diver due to the strong currents and big swells which naturally occur where the Indian and Southern Oceans meet.
Although the local conditions make it dangerous for inexperienced divers, there have been some teams over the years who have been committed to mapping the wreck. The Pericles Research Group has been one such team, who report that there are plenty of nooks to explore, with three massive boilers still standing intact near the engine.
The Pericles remains the only shipwreck at Cape Leeuwin since the Lighthouse was built in 1896.
Information & photos courtesy of the Museum Of Underwater Archeology.
Pericles Wreck - Photo by Ben Hall
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