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A mystery from history

AT first glance it didn’t look worthwhile for Darryl Cram to bend down with heavy camera gear on his back and take a closer look at an object on Murrells Beach – or so it seemed.

But thanks to the persistence of wife Carol, he eventually did – and now the couple have a mystery of history on their hands.

For in their possession is a deadeye – a wooden disc from the sailing ships of yore which played a vital role in rigging by acting as a tensioning device for the stays that held the masts in place.

It appears as though it might be off a shipwreck from the 1850s, according to a couple of local history sleuths have been on the case.

Mr Cram was heading west along the beach, past the first point, about a month ago when he saw what from a distance he thought looked like a wheel off a wheel barrow.

Mrs Cram was a bit behind him and when she caught up the couple passed it on the way back.

“I said I thought it looked like it was off a boat, but I was carrying my camera gear and didn’t really want to bend down to pick it up,” Mr Cram said.

“Carol saw it and that was the start of it.”

Mrs Cram said her husband wasn’t keen on carrying it back, but she persisted and then called on Gordon Stokes and Garry Kerr for their help in trying to work out where the deadeye was from.

The pair consulted the history books – particularly Shipwrecks on Victoria’s West Coast by Don Love – and narrowed down which boats it could have come off.

According to them there are four possibilities - the Marie (1851), SS Barwon (1871), or as outside chances the John Ormerod (1861) or the Jane (1863).

Not that they are supremely confident.

“Then again it could have been none of them,” Mr Stokes said.

Yet of the prospects above, they believe it is likely to have come from the Marie. But why?

Firstly, the deadeye is made of wood – Mr Stokes believes it is oak – and that indicates a wooden vessel.

While the Barwon is a possibility, it was an iron steamship, though Mr Stokes said it would have been rigged.

Secondly, those boats were shipwrecked in the sorts of spots where wreckage could have washed up in the Murrells Beach area.

And thirdly the size of the deadeye indicates a ship of up to 900 tonnes.

That last criterion is due to a friend of Mr Kerr’s in Tasmania having in his possession a deadeye of similar size to that of the Crams’, which did come off a 900-tonne boat.

The Marie, from contemporary records, was half that size, but the boats shipwrecked in the area in those days were not any larger than that.

A Belgian boat built of oak and white pine, it was headed from Antwerp to Sydney with a substantial cargo and an unknown number of passengers aboard (later believed to be more than 25) and had set out from Adelaide when parts of its wreck washed up at Bridgewater Bay in September 1851.

It had earlier been seen in Discovery Bay the afternoon before it was wrecked, and there was a strong south westerly wind blowing.

Six bodies and two detached heads were recovered along the coast.

Mr Kerr said it was not known for a long time where the Marie had gone down, but in the past 50 years abalone divers had discovered two ships anchors a short distance off shore about 300m towards the springs from the blowholes.

“The horror of that event for the people on board could barely be imagined,” he said.

“The captain probably had to make a tough decision whether to drop anchor and hope that it held or take a chance that he could sail the ship clear of Cape Bridgewater.

“It seems he decided to take the second option, with dire consequences.

“It would appear that the anchor cables parted, and the timber vessel was dashed to pieces against the cliff.”

Complicating matters a bit is that in 1990 Heritage Victoria archaeologists found exposed remains at White’s Beach, on the other side of Cape Bridgewater, that were believed to be from the Marie.

Either way, Mr Stokes believed the deadeye the Crams found had been released from sediment built up over the years when the cable around it finally gave way.

“The rope was usually protected in a tar type of coating and it would have held on for a long time,” he said.

But the important part now was conserving it until it could be preserved by experts.

The Crams were keeping it wet with a dip in a bucket of salt water the recommended treatment.

Mr Stokes, a member of the Glenelg Shire Council Cultural Collection reference group, had also spoken to council staff about finding a place for it.

“If (the Crams) are happy to offer it to the Collection (and they are), the process of acquiring it will begin,” Mr Stokes said.

“Then conservation work can be allocated within the budget. The salts can be withdrawn out of it which will conserve the timber.”

The Crams’ discovery also highlighted some legal issues around the finding of such items, Mr Stokes said.

If it had been found by someone while diving, it would be illegal to remove it from where it was, with all wrecks more than 50 years old, known or unknown, protected by the Shipwrecks Act.

Anyone who did find items that possibly could be from a shipwreck should contact Heritage Victoria.

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