Why is the wreck of this ship being remembered in the Australian maritime history books all these years later?

Because it remains one of the worst maritime disasters in Australian history resulting in the tragic loss of 89 lives, mostly due to cold and exposure. They were in sight of land but unable to reach it.

Of the 113 persons on board when SS Admella departed Adelaide bound for Melbourne on a cold grey day in mid-winter 1859, only 24 person would survive. Of those 24 survivors, only one was a woman.

Within 24 hours of departing Adelaide and in the early hours of the following morning, the ship would hit a hidden reef approximately one mile (1.6km) off the coast and close to the point where the borders of South Australian and Victoria meet.  (The S.A town of Port MacDonnell has since been established in close proximity to the Carpenter Rock reef.)  The ship would be a total wreck within 15 minutes of hitting the reef, breaking apart amidships from the heavy seas that battered the ship.

In sight of the nearby shores but unable to reach it because of the weather and pounding seas, the survivors had to endure eight days of direct exposure to the elements, hanging on or lashing themselves to what remained of the ship to prevent being washed off. They had little to no drinking water or food so many over the period of time succumbed to weakness, exposure and just slipped into the seas and disappeared.

Many heroic attempts were made to rescue the survivors, only to be repelled by the seas until the eighth day when conditions were such a rescue boat was able to reach them.

On Saturday, 3rd March at 2:00 pm at our museum John Eades from the Australian National Maritime Museum, will highlight the events leading up to the ship hitting the reef: the initial attempts among the survivors to reach the shore; the two crewmen who were able to reach the shore and then walked through virgin bush, a distance of 20 miles (32km) to advise the distant Northumberland lighthouse of their plight;  the rescuers and their attempts over the period of time to reach the survivors marooned on what remained of the vessel;  and the final conclusion as to what factors contributed to this disastrous maritime accident.

It is an interesting tale of tragedy and survival and one that will remain in our Australian history books forever.


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Karen Whittaker

My first cousin, five times removed was James Whittaker of Kapunda, who died on this wreck. He was taking racehorses to Melbourne for the racing and our family story says that his horse Jupiter slipped in his loosebox on deck due to the rough seas, so the Captain steered closer to shore to try and find calmer waters, hitting the treacherous Carpenter’s Rocks as a consequence. James Whittaker 1799-1859 was a wealthy man with a fortune of 20,000 pounds, who built many buildings in Kapunda including the Sir John Franklin Hotel, the post office and the general store, plus a grain store. Whittaker Street in Kapunda is named after him. He died intestate and there was a 17 year long court case for my relatives from Wisconsin to claim the inheritance. With the inheritance the American sounding town of Dowlingville near Ardrossan was built and farmed by my Great Great Grandfather William and his sons. Dowling was my Great Great Grandmother Maria’s maiden name.There are Whittaker farms there still and descendants up meet in the church sometimes. The Whittaker Saga, our family history is available in some SA libraries.

Don Campbell

My Great, Great Grandfather – Walter Brown was the first Engineer/Marine Engineer on the SS Admella – a Glasgow to Melbourne bound steamship. It ran a service between Adelaide and Melbourne in the 1850’s. It ran aground on the south coast of Australia and he perished with many others – about 35m from where I was on holiday 2 years ago. He had a wife and a very young daughter back in Glasgow – the daughter was Janet Doig Brown. Janet Doig Brown married a Mcpehrson and had a daughter Isabella – that was my Fathers mother. I was amazed when I found this out. My family knew nothing about this before our research discovery via Ancestry. MY Father may have had a very vague recollection but he was born in 1920 and it would have been long gone even by then I expect.