“Scammell House” a family home

story by Carleen Thoernberg

Scammell House rear
c State Library Victoria

Hidden behind a fence in the heart of old Torquay is a special old house – one of the first in Torquay.  It is my family home and has been in our family since 1891.  It was put there as a holiday house by my great grandfather, William Pride, for his large family.  Today, it is lived in by my mother and is a greatly loved family treasure.  The story of the house is unusual, if not unique, and closely linked with the development of early Torquay

Imagine a wild, late autumn Torquay night, one of those nights when the sea boils, a south-easterly wind howls and the tide is so high and the waves so huge that they hit up against the wall at the front beach. On a night such as this, with the added drama of heavy flooding rain, on 7 May 1891, the ship Joseph H. Scammell went onto the rocks at Point Danger, 400 yards from the shore and about half a mile from the Torquay Coffee Palace (Follett’s).  There she became stuck.

The people of Geelong opened their Advertisers on the morning of 8 May to read the startling news that a ship was stranded on the reef near Spring Creek (as Torquay was known then).  By dawn, there were people on the beach observing the distressed ship.

Joseph H Scammell Shipwreck

The first person to notice the ship was a local fisherman Felix Rosser who was inspecting his crayfish pots at around 11 pm, on the night of the 7 May and saw the red and green lights of a ship approaching in close, and then, torches flashing from on deck.  The storm was so severe he could do nothing.

Together with two other fishermen living at Spring Creek, Charles Allman and Neil Neilson he lit a fire on the shore and kept it up all night to show those on board that they had been seen. He also sent a messenger to Geelong, although heavy rains had flooded the unmade rough roads. 

There was an interval of calm around 2 am on the morning of the 8th, so he attempted to row out to the distressed ship. He only got within 300 yards of her but could get no closer because of the size of the waves. 

At daylight, Rosser and a fishing mate rowed out again and got a little closer.  A lifeboat with three men in it was in the process of being lowered, but the ropes broke, and the lifeboat broke away with only the three men in it.  It got safely to Zeally Bay under Rosser’s guidance.  Rosser tried a third time to get to the ship and finally succeeded in getting there and was able to take the captain’s wife, six-year-old daughter Hattie and the stewardess off. 

The remainder of the crew – 21 men, including ten negros – were landed shortly after 8 am. The captain John Albert Chapman, the first mate and the carpenter were the last to be taken off.  The crew, mainly Negro, were taken to Follett’s Coffee Palace, (which got its licence later that year and became the Torquay pub) and on the Friday Captain Chapman was taken to Geelong by Superintendent Toohey to stay at the Union Club Hotel and from there to Melbourne.


The ‘Joseph H. Scammell’ was a three-masted clipper, made of Nova Scotian (Canadian) Pine – my father always says other timbers make up part of the deckhouse, and other marine historians have said the timbers are teak and oregon – and built in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Canada in 1884 at the seaport of Eaton by D. and C. Eaton. She weighed 1410 tons and was one of the last timber ships ever built.  Iron ships were already being made by then.

She was built for the Eastern trade, including India, Hong Kong and the Australian colonies by her St Johns, New Brunswick owners and the brothers John Walter Scammell, Frederick Ernest Scammell and Joseph H Scammell.  It had successfully traded in the Eastern trade for the last five years and was noted for its speed.  She sailed from Nova Scotia in 1890 to New York, arriving late in that year. Onboard were the captain, his wife, his six-year-old daughter, Hattie, a stewardess, Josephine Bezelaw, and the crew of 21.  Also on board was the grey Persian family cat, Jimmy. 

On 13 January 1891, she left New York on her maiden voyage to Australia with a cargo valued at £80,000.  The journey to Australia was expected to take 100 days but took 114.  She travelled around the Cape of Good Hope and averaged 250 to 300 miles per day as anticipated. The last 800 miles were much slower, however, with light winds and calms and a constant list to port due to a badly packed cargo.

The night she was wrecked was a night of terrible storms and there is a lot of detail available about why she went ashore. Briefly, however, from Cape Otway the ship encountered squally weather, which cleared enough for the crew to see the new lighthouse under construction at Split Point.  However, the weather came in thick again and before nightfall they tacked offshore, signalling for a pilot.  During the course of the evening the weather cleared again, the captain and officers conferred on their position believing that they had sighted the Queenscliff, Arthur’s Seat and Cape Schank lights and were confident they were sailing six to eight miles of Point Danger – known then as Point Angle.

What they had actually sighted were either the lights of a fisherman’s hut at Spring Creek or, according to Don Duffield, Follet’s Kerosene lamp up at the coffee palace – accounts differ on this.  Later the captain was critical of the number of lights in the vicinity of Port Phillip Heads, as well as of the pilot system.  He believed that as he had reached the Heads in daylight and had been signalling for a pilot since reaching Cape Otway and that it was the pilots’ fault that the ship was “bumping her heart out on those rocks” and not lying safe at Williamstown. 

Just after 10 o’clock the first mate was sent up and was shocked to see breakers ahead.  Within seconds of sighting what he took to be a black cloud, signifying a heavy squall approaching, the ship struck lightly on Angel Point (Point Danger), and the “black cloud” was seen to be a headland.  An attempt to back the ship off was defeated when the wind suddenly died away, and the ship was at the mercy of the breaking waves as the bow stuck in the reef and the stern swung around.  She was in the worst possible position, stuck broadside on to a heavy, breaking surf with seas breaching over the vessel. It was rolling constantly, the surf throwing it onto its beam-ends, with the dangerously shaking masts and yards threatening to crash onto the deck at any minute. 

The top gallant-mast was carried away about midday on the Friday and later in the afternoon the other two masts snapped away. By dark, on the day of 8 May, it was obvious the ship was about to break up. By daylight on the following day, Sunday 9 May, there was nothing to be seen above water but a shapeless mass of timber. All along the shore of Zeally Bay the wreckage of the vessel was strewn for miles, the remains of the cargo and the still intact deckhouse with one side of the ship still attached to it.

After surviving the night on the ship, Mrs Chapman was recorded in the Argus of 9 May as saying, “We were quite close to shore, but the surf was awful. I made up my mind that we should never get ashore, Josephine tells me I was quite cool and calm, but it must have been the calmness of despair.  It was very risky work getting out the boat (her word).  We had to climb down a rope ladder and hang on until the exact moment that the wave brought the boat (again her word) just under us.  I tell you I was glad when I got ashore”.

The Argus of 9 May reported, “Mrs Chapman’s experience of the seas has been exceptionally unfortunate – she has twice shared her husband’s voyages, and on each occasion, the ship has been lost”.  It was a terrifying night on board for all, although the crew “behaved excellently”.

The Argus of 9 May continues with some delightful Edwardian melodrama – “While the sailors waited for the end on deck an even more pitiable scene was in progress below.  The captain’s wife, a woman young, delicate and unused to sea life, her child Hattie and the stewardess Josephine Bezelaw, had been startled from sleep by shock of the ship striking the reef. Keeping the child between them, they huddled together in the cabin, bruised and knocked about by the incessant rolling of the ship, knowing nothing of the actual extent of the danger, but judging the worst from the confusion and alarm on deck. The captain saw them for a few minutes and did his best to reassure them, but for nearly the whole of the night, they were left to themselves in the cabin, with the fear of death perpetually before them.  The stewardess broke down and cried, but the captain’s wife preserved her calmness.  The child sat wide awake all night, without complaint, nursing the ship’s cat on her lap”. 

My uncle received a letter in 1939 from a lady telling him that she and her parents, while on holiday, had been eyewitnesses of the wreck. His parents had taken the cat home to Melbourne with them and that little Hettie, the captain’s daughter, had called him Jimmy. Jimmy disappeared about a year later.

Captain John Albert Chapman had been at sea for 28 years, mainly with Scammell Brothers ships.  He had also invested heavily in this new ship, and it was not insured.  Records differ as to the fate of Captain Chapman. The most likely is that at the court case he had his certificate suspended for twelve months for negligence but managed to leave the state and disappear without paying the court costs.  He was never heard of again.

By midday of the day after the wreck, there were 2000 people on the beach, and frantic looting of cargo, which was spread along 4 miles of beach took place.  My grandmother (mum’s mother, William Pride’s second youngest child and the hero of my story) remembers being carried out on to the wreck on her father’s shoulders. My other grandmother told us about being taken to see the wreck by her father and playing in the sand, making castles with meat skewers washed up onto the beach.  Both grandmothers were six at the time. 

There are all sorts of amusing stories about the hiding, or smuggling out of cargo – especially kerosene and tobacco.  For example, the search of residences resulted in tobacco being hurriedly thrown over fences.  Another person got away with two trips to the beach in his wagon before being caught on his third.  It was one of the biggest waves of pilfering and smuggling seen around the Victorian coast.  The cargo was spread from the front beach all the way to Bancoora Beach.

The copy of the manifest shows a fascinating cargo and gives us a glimpse into how dependent we were only 120 years ago on being able to import almost all of what we needed.  The goods included tobacco, printing paper, sugar, kerosene, turpentine, benzine, lubricating oil, medicines, clocks, organs, perambulators shoe pegs and general hardware. 


Customs officials and police officers were very busy blocking the road in and out of Geelong, and £400 was raised in fines.  The tobacco alone was valued at £2,000.  At 3 pm on Sunday (10 May) kerosene was lit along the beach, and there was a long line of flame, which must have been an amazing sight.  My mother was told that this was also a diversion to enable looters to get at the cargo while the police were busy attending to the long line of fire.  A lot of loot was buried in the sandhills, but many people who did that could not find it when they came back for it.  On 13 May what remained of the wreck was sold for £85 to W.T. Wallis of Geelong. Eight hundred people attended an auction on the beach on the 16 May –  conducted by Robinson, Burns and Sparrow. 

And this is where the hero of the story, William Pride, my great grandfather on my mother’s side comes in. He bought the deckhouse, which had drifted ashore intact onto the front bathing beach, for £40.  He paid a district farmer another £40 to move it onto his block of land – the £40 to be paid on successful completion of the task.  The story of how he got this huge box structure of solid beams and enormous weight, onto his block of land, is quite extraordinary.  The following photographs of a preserved ship of the same type and period give us an idea of what the structure was like. 

There are three different versions that I know of that have been passed down by word of mouth as to where the deckhouse was pulled up. My grandmother, who was an eye witness says it was pulled up at Cosy Corner. My uncle was told by his mother my grandmother’s older sister, also an eye witness, that it was pulled up on the surf beach side of Point Danger (known then as Angle Point).  Don Duffield’s grandmother told him that it was pulled up around at Fishermans Beach just opposite the bowls club. 

The story I was brought up with was that a ramp was formed, by cutting away the edge of the cliff at Cosy Corner, and then the structure was dragged on rollers using block and tackle affixed to a post some distance from the beach.  This way, 5 or 6 horses could pull downhill, causing them less strain and giving them a better footing. After a month of incredible effort by those poor horses, one of the pulley blocks broke, and the deckhouse slipped back onto the beach. A second attempt by another party failed, so the deckhouse was secured on the beach for the rest of the winter.

Three months later, a third contractor, Tim Leary, an expert stevedore from Geelong, was engaged to do the job. He rigged up a heavy gear from shipping company in Geelong and successfully got the structure up onto the block – oral history has it that he used 40 horses to pull it on rollers across the land once it got to the top of the cliff.  There was just one tiny problem – he put it on the wrong allotment, and it had to be moved several yards south. 

Rooms were added to the top of the deck house to accommodate sleeping quarters for the family. This house has been the centre of family life for six generations – my great grandparents and their family, my grandmother and her siblings (they were a family of 12 and had an army of friends). My mother and her numerous cousins, my sister and I. Our numerous cousins and friends, all the children from this lot, and now the 6th generation of babies are coming to sleep in the old house and play in the rock pools at the front beach. If the beams in the old deck house could speak, they could certainly tell some tales, not the least of which would be stories of boyfriends with lumps on their heads from cracking them on the 5’8” beams across the ceiling. The big room holds lots of family memories.