SS Gothenburg – A haunting watery grave

The 60m long steam ship Gothenburg was built in Essex (UK) in 1854.

In 1862, Gothenburg began operation in an Australian-New Zealand run as a passenger steamer and later travelled the route from Port Darwin to Melbourne with a crew of 37 and 98 passengers including some prestigious members of society.

SS Gothenburg docked at Port Adelaide wharf after her lengthening in 1873.
SS Gothenburg docked at Port Adelaide wharf in 1873.
Credit John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

Much like the infamous Titanic, Gothenburg’s last trip focused on making the best possible speed under renowned Captain Robert Pearce but, this story also has a notorious twist – stashed away in the Captain’s cabin was approximately 93 kilograms of gold valued at £40,000 (approximately £4,645,891 in 2020).

On 24th February 1875, as Gothenburg steam south down the Queensland coast, it encountered cyclonic weather conditions. At 7pm, Gothenburg struck the southern edge of Detached Reef approximately 131km southeast of Townsville.

Initially there was no panic as the crew and passengers expected the vessel to refloat at high-tide. However, attempts to reverse the vessel ended up ripping holes in the hull and increasing weather conditions meant certain doom.

Artist impression of the wreck of the steamer Gothenburg
Artist’s impression of the wreck of SS Gothenburg.
Credit Hugh George for Wilson and MacKinnon – La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria.

While attempting to lower the ship’s four life boats, the first two accidently came adrift during the confusion and strong winds swept the boats away before passengers could board. A third boat with women and children capsized when others panicked and tried to board. Passengers and crew fought for their lives as the steamer broke up and by morning, only the masts could be seen above the water.

Twenty-two passengers were rescued but 106 lives were lost including all 25 women and children and all the officers on board.  One passenger recalled the horrific sight of “the sea was covered with human heads bobbing up and down like corks.”

Over the next 48 hours, survivors clung to the masts and eventually set sail in a small lifeboat for help. The steamship Leichardt picked up a lifeboat with survivors and went to aid of the wreck.

Two weeks later, a hardhat diver descended to retrieve the lost gold. The diver recounted, “finding the bodies of two women at the foot of the saloon staircase, one with her arm around the other.” The bodies sat just out of reach, the diver’s air hose coming to short and sadly, they were never identified.

With much difficulty, the gold was recovered. Sharks caught near the wreck contained the bodies and remains of humans along with their jewellery.

Stern of SS Gothenburg (1875) shipwreck,
Credit: Dive into History – Queensland Shipwrecks, Department of Environment and Science

Today, Gothenburg is a protected wreck. At 63m long, the stern and double boiler are wonderful features on a wreck home to many fish and sharks. Beauty aside, it also lays in memory of the people that lost their lives in this horrific event over 125 years ago.

Compiled by Dr Maddy McAllister, Senior Curator Maritime Archaeology, Museum of Tropical Queensland