About the Grace Bussell Story:Grace Bussell (1860 – 1953) is famous in Western Australia for riding her horse into thunderous crashing waves to rescue survivors from the SS Georgette ship wreck off Redgate Beach in 1876 when she was 16 years old.
Pretty much everyone who lives in Western Australia for any length of time learns of the Grace Bussell story, either at school or on holidays Down South. In the Margaret River Region she is a local legend. Many people think of her as WA’s version of Grace Darling – in fact for most of my childhood I didn’t realise they were two different people from similar stories!
Also Sam Isaacs’s Story!
Something else I didn’t know until relatively recently was that a 30 year old Aboriginal man called Samuel Isaacs (also called Yebble, his Wardandie Aboriginal name) played an equally important role in the rescue alongside Grace Bussell. He was the one who first sighted the troubled ship out to sea, and he too rode his horse into the waves and saved many lives.
Although Sam Isaacs was rewarded for his bravery, he didn’t receive quite the same level of honour and glory in the newspapers and history books as young Grace Bussell did.
The SS. Georgette‘s Final Voyage
The SS. Georgette set off from Fremantle on the 29th November bound for Bunbury, Busselton, Albany and Adelaide, a route that the Georgette sailed regularly.
The ship was carrying 50 passengers plus 8 crew, and a cargo that included jarrah wood timbers that were loaded in Bunbury prior to the departure from Fremantle. During the loading one of these large heavy timbers – some were over 9 metres long and 30cm wide – fell down into the hold. This is thought to be what caused the leak in the hull that became apparent an hour or two after midnight on the 1st December, in rough conditions approximately 30 miles south-west of Cape Naturaliste.
Unfortunately the pumps on board would not start so there was no way to keep the ship from taking in water. At around 4 or 5am the passengers were woken and some of them helped the crew to bail water of the hold. At around 6 in the morning the captain set a course towards land. Not long after, the engine room was flooded, extinguishing the engine fires leaving the Georgette with only the little power the sails could provide, adrift on heavy seas with a rising swell but being pushed by the waves ever closer towards land.
A survivor of the wreck called Annie Simpson recalls –
We were called out of our beds and could not stay to dress. I had slept in an old dress that night because I felt rather sick. My baby had on only a little dress, and we were all barefooted. It was cold in the early morning wind so I asked a man if he would get me a blanket to put around the baby. He refused. After a little while I asked another man if he would please get me a blanket for my baby. He went and had to run through the big waves that were sweeping over the deck, but he got back with two blankets, one for baby and one for me.
Sam Isaacs Sees the Georgette in Trouble and Raises the Alarm
Sam Isaacs, who was at the time a stockman working for Alfred and Ellen Bussell, was the first person to catch sight of the floundering Georgette off the coast of Redgate, or by some accounts further north towards Prevelly. Even from afar it was obvious to him that this was a ship in serious trouble. Fearing imminent disaster, he set off towards his employer’s home Walcliffe House near the Margaret Rivermouth (at what is now Prevelly Park) to raise the alarm and send for help.
Meanwhile on the Georgette, the first of the lifeboats was launched but unfortunately it was smashed against the ship’s hull by a huge wave and snapped in half, sending all 20 on board into the water. Two women and five children drowned and the others were rescued by five men using the ship’s rowboat (not a life boat).
The people crammed into the small row boat had to battle huge swells and constantly bail out water for many hours. They did not reach land until after dark but all on board managed to survive and were looked after by local farmers.
Annie Simpson, who was one of the people in the first lifeboat with her baby, said of the incident:
Just then another big wave struck the lifeboat and threw it against the ship’s side. It broke clean in half from end to end, and I shall never forget the awful screams that went up. All in a few seconds we were struggling in the water, and it was then that most of the lives were lost. I floated out on my back, saw the broken boat turn over and float away, and saw the Georgette for the last time. The next wave hid it from my view. My baby was rolled in his blanket like a little Indian baby. I had my left arm round him, holding him on top of my body, and I held my right arm and limbs rigid in an effort to keep on floating. I believe I was all alone, as I could not see or hear anyone else. The hairpins were all gone, and my hair was being washed around my head like seaweed. I remember going under twice, and then I was asleep.
The Georgette continued to drift and eventually ended up off Calgardup Bay, heading into the treacherous Redgate Beach surf break.
The Heroic Rescue by Grace Bussell and Sam Isaacs
Grace Bussell and her mother Ellen were busy in the kitchen preparing for Christmas when they were surprised by the sudden arrival of Sam Isaacs in the room. The two women and were the only people at home at the time as all the men of the house were out working on the land.
Upon hearing the news of the stricken vessel in grave danger, young Grace volunteered to help in a rescue mission. She and Sam immediately set about gathering ropes and saddling the horses, then galloped down the coast to the scene of the wreck.
By the time they arrived the Georgette had run aground at Redgate and was breaking up in the surf. All the survivors were in very real danger, with the ship breaking up around them and the lifeboats being constantly swamped by huge waves. Grace and Sam swum their horses out into the sea, battling through the powerful surf.
They eventually managed to reach a lifeboat where Grace encouraged as many people as possible to hold onto the ropes and the horse for the swim back through the breakers to the safety of Redgate Beach. One man was left on the life boat but was later rescued by Sam.
Captain Godfrey continued to launch lifeboats as the ship went down, but they couldn’t stay afloat in the 2 metre swell and were swamped by the waves. Grace, Sam and the horses returned into the dangerous surf several times over 4 hours until the last of the ship wreck’s survivors were safe on dry land.
The survivors were taken in by the Bussell family at Wallcliffe house where Ellen Bussell looked after them while they recovered from the ordeal.
Grace Bussell Hailed as a HeroineNews of the ship wreck and daring rescue travelled around the world and Grace was hailed in Australia as “the Grace Darling of the West” and went down in West Australian history as a heroine. She was awarded a silver medal from the Royal Humane Society. She was also given a gold watch from the Board of Trade, and her father Alfred Bussell was compensated by the government for feeding, clothing and housing the survivors.
Sam Isaacs’s role in the rescue was downplayed by the newspapers and he was only given a bronze medal for bravery, which seems a bit unfair as he was no less brave than Grace. This was probably due in part to racist and classist attitudes in the Press and among the general public in the 19th century. I also suspect the newspapers would have seen the bravery of the young girl from a good prominent family (the Bussells pioneered the land between Augusta and Busselton and were quite well-off) as being a much more sensational story than that of a brave 30 year old stockman.
But despite not being fairly acknowledged in the newspapers and history books, he was generously rewarded by the WA state government who gifted him with 100 acres of crown land of his choosing. He chose a plot of land by the Margaret River near Prevelly, where he lived out his days and raised a large family.
More About the SS Georgette
The SS Georgette was a 211-tonne, 46-metre sail/steamboat built in 1872 in Dumbarton, Scotland. She was sold almost new to Western Australian buyers, arriving in Fremantle Harbour in 1873. She was put to use sailing the coast between Geraldton, Fremantle and Albany as a passenger, mail and trading service, with stops at smaller ports in between and some occasional voyages as far as Adelaide.
Nine months before the fateful voyage that ended at Redgate Beach, the Georgette was involved in what is known as “The Catalpa Rescue”. The Catalpa was an American whaling ship that in April 1836 helped a group of Fenian political prisoners escape the West Australian penal colony via Fremantle by serving as their getaway vehicle. They were pursued for several hours by Georgette but in the end their escape was successful and the former prisoners settled in the United States.
The Wreck of the SS Georgette Today
The wreck of the Georgette is located about 90 metres off the northern end of Redgate Beach beneath the surf break in Calgardup Bay at a depth of about 5 metres. The signage at Redgate indicates that it’s located just to the left of the off-shore rocks. The wreckage can still occasionally be seen from shore today, on a very calm and clear day. In exceptionally calm conditions it is even possible to snorkel over or dive on the wreck.
Some References and Further Reading
- Information on the Georgette and the ship wreck incident on the Museum of Western Australia’s Shipwreck Databases – includes a personal account by passengers James and William Dempster and all the specs and details of the Georgette
- First person account by Annie Simpson in a letter to the editor published in 1935
- Sam Isaacs’s grandson Vic’s telling of the Georgette ship wreck story as passed down to him through the family
Last Updated: 31st October, 2014.
First posted on 11th October, 2014 by Bonny.
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