On Tuesday 8th April, 1924, two ships collided in a treacherous stretch of water near the entrance of Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay, known as The Rip. Five crew members and one passenger drowned when a massive coal steamer, the Dilkera, ploughed into a small coastal steamer, the Wyrallah, which had strayed across its path. The Wyrallah sank like a stone in less than ten minutes, and the heartbreaking cries of the drowning men could be heard from the Dilkera until there was nothing but silence.
For the survivors, there was the dampened joy of a “miracle”. Meanwhile, for the families of the lost, there was only devastating heartbreak, and in many cases, also serious financial hardship. Widows were left without husbands, and children without fathers. With the victims being Melbourne men, the tragedy would have hit the city hard. With those few degrees of separation, many would have known the families and been touched by the Wyrallah Disaster in quite a personal way. Indeed, I can almost hear people talking in the streets about someone they knew. Yet, that pain was obviously most acute for the little ones who’d lost their dads. I keep thinking of those little children all tucked into their beds on that ill-fated night, sleeping soundly and not knowing Daddy wasn’t coming home. It breaks my heart. I’m also conscious that my grandmother and her brother were also sleeping in their beds at home in Sydney’s Bondi, equally oblivious to the tragedy. However, lucky for them, their father came back. Well, at least, he did that time.
My Great Grandfather, Reuben William Gardiner, was Second Mate onboard the Dilkera, and that’s what initially drew me into this story. While you’d expect that some reference to the collision would have passed down through the family, the first I knew about it, was spotting a reference in the online newspaper repository, Trove. I am something of a shadow hunter, relentlessly pursuing the lost tales of my ancestors through the online newspapers. Naturally, finding a reference to something this monumental, was something I had to pursue at full throttle and naturally, I wanted to know more about his role in the tragedy. I donned my Sherlock Holmes hat and cloak and set to work.
Unfortunately, when it came to knowing Reuben William Gardiner on any personal level, I’d barely seen the tip of the ice berg. He died more than thirty years before I was born, and had become little more than a photograph on my grandmother’s shelf, and a few snippets of story. He was still quite a young looking man in the photo, and he was wearing his officer’s cap. Although he’d qualified as a Master Mariner, he was working as Second Mate with the Adelaide Steamship Company. Apparently, from a technical perspective, that meant he was responsible for navigation onboard. However, that doesn’t take into account his love of the sea, the comraderie with his mates, or that knowledge that the fate of the ship rested in the Lord’s hands. Or, perhaps it was all just down to luck. I’m actually surprised more philosophers weren’t created out sailing on ships, rather than hanging out in the relative safety of Paris cafes.
Reuben Gardiner was born on 3rd Dec, 1876 in Newtown, Sydney to William Henry Gardiner boot maker and Sarah Ann Baker. A few years later, his younger brother, Frederick, followed. However, in 1884, tragedy struck when his mother and twin brothers died in childbirth leaving nine year old Reuben and brother without a mum. On 1st April, 1891 William Henry Gardiner married Jane Ann Lynch at St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church Wollombi. Reuben struggled to adjust to his new step-mother, who he referred to as “Mrs G”. According to my grandmother, when he was around 17, he left home in West Maitland and joined the merchant navy. In 1910, he married piano teacher Ruby May McNamara at Waverley. Ruby was the eldest of eight daughters born at Queanbeyan to John McNamara and Elizabeth Johnston. I knew Ruby as “Gran, but they called each other: “Reub and Rube”.
What I did know about Reuben Gardiner, was that he died of a heart attack at sea onboard the Arkaba in 1936. Reuben died only four months after my grandmother, concert pianist Eunice Gardiner, had left for London with her mother onboard the Esperance Bay and neither could attend his funeral held at Sydney’s towering St Mary’s Cathedral.
Eunice had won a prestigious scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music in London and was already quite a sensation. A fundraising committee had been established by Lady Gordon and a big testimonial concert was held at Sydney’s Town Hall to finance her studies. However, there was never any question of Eunice going to London alone. Her father was clear: “You might as well throw her to the sharks in Sydney Harbour.”However, this meant that Ruby wasn’t here to bury her husband and make those last goodbyes. That in supporting her daughter’s prodigious talent as she had always done, Ruby had made an incredible personal sacrifice. Reuben’s death also meant that Eunice’s older brother, Dr Les Gardiner, a young doctor at St Vincent’s Hospital, stepped in and supported his mother and sister while putting his own surgical studies on hold and supporting his own wife and family.
So, in a different sense, I have also grown up with this story of a father going off to sea, and not coming home, but for different reasons.
In addition to my personal connection to the collision, I also saw another story emerging from the Wyrallah Disaster. Something about the mysterious twists and turns of fate, which most of us fail to understand, and pause to question from time to time and usually at our peril. These two ships could well have passed each other in the night. Yet, through a series of such twists and turns, they collided. Why was it so? Why did the survivors make it, while the victims perished? Was it God, fate, destiny or just bad luck? Who or what was at the helm of that particular ship? The one which makes all the ultimate decisions over life and death? Was it God? Each of us has a length of string. Some of us have a longer piece of string than others. Moreover, some of us will know when our time is close, while many have no idea at all. They’re suddenly struck down by the equivalent of a cosmic thunderbolt, and that’s it. Game Over.
Of course, we can’t live our lives constantly in the shadow of the Grim Reaper. We need to Carpe Diem seize the day. Stretch ourselves out to our full capacity, not knowing whether we’re going to make it. Indeed, there seems to be something innately human about challenging ourselves well beyond our known capabilities, even if it does lead us to our death. In that case, our loved ones stoically celebrate: “At least, they went doing what they loved.”
However, I wonder how many of us actually consider that it could well be a little, miniscule detail something so small we can barely see it, which in that flash of lightening, that momentary second in time, puts us in the wrong place at the wrong time? Moreover, in some instances the difference between life and death can be a few centimetres either to the left or the right. One person dies, while the other survives. It can all seem so random. In many instances, there were turning points where decisions were made setting all sorts of events in motion. Yet, there is no turning back. After all, we can’t just rewind and “play it again, Sam”. What’s done is done. We can only learn from it, and do our best to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Above: Three of the “missing men who lost their lives onboard the Wyrallah. Engineer John Wighton (on the right) went back in to rescue the firemen and didn’t make it out.
Personally, I find it hard to understand how God’s will, fate, destiny, good and bad luck and miracles all come together. I don’t understand why some people who have been very close to me or people I care about, have died tragically and far too young. However, I do believe that each of us has our lot…our own burden to carry. Yet, at the same time, I also know that in many instances we can make things better or worse for ourselves. Indeed, I’m constantly amazed by how often we shoot ourselves in the foot without any help from anybody else. I do that myself.
It took a long of reading and research before I could even start to understand what happened on that ill-fated night of the Wyrallah Disaster. Moreover, naturally my initial focus was to place my Great Grandfather at the scene and find out what I could about the role he played, if any. However, most of the newspaper coverage focused on the survivors and “missing” from the Wyrallah, and they weren’t interested in the actions of Mr RW Gardiner. However, that didn’t stop me from infusing him into the scene. As I read stories of survivors being wrenched from the wreckage by the grip of a stranger pulling them to safety, I wanted that to be him. I wanted him to be the good guy, the Good Samaritan, the hero.
However, tough decisions also had to be made and not everyone could be the hero. The Dilkera had also been damaged in the collision and at the time, both ships were within the treacherous waters of The Rip. The Dilkera desperately needed to reach safety to assess her own damage. So, after quickly saving who they could, a decision was made not to stop to save the drowning men… the chilling voices calling out from the sinking vessel. Captain Watson decided that it was “better to save one ship than to lose two”. Of course, when you’re talking about maneuvering a massive vessel like the Dilkera, swinging into action wouldn’t have been a simple matter, and it was considered too dangerous to send out the lifeboats. There would only be a further loss of life. Yet, there’s still that Good Samaritan in me who can’t understand how anyone could leave those men behind without even throwing them a lifebelt. That said, by all accounts, it seems that the men died very quickly and more than likely, that nothing could be done. However, I wasn’t the only one asking such questions and the newspapers of the day also wanted to know. There was also an inquiry.
Speaking of the inquiry, I thought I might just mention that Sir Robert Gordon Menzies (1894-1978), former Australian Prime Minister twice over (26 April 1939 – 29 August 1941 and19 December 1949 – 26 January 1966) , represented the owners of the Wyrallah at the inquiry. Admitted to the Bar in 1918, he’d already established a name for himself. In 1920, as advocate for the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, he won a case in the High Court of Australia, which proved a landmark in the positive reinterpretation of Commonwealth powers over those of the States.
So, already quite a complex story has started taking shape. However, unfortunately even a good story doesn’t come all neatly gift wrapped. I have a lot of hard work ahead but I want to take this story as far as I can. Fingers crossed. I can see this one having a beginning, a middle and an end.
I would be particularly interested to hear from anyone connected with collision of the Wyrallah and the Dilkera. It’s definitely a story which deserves to be retold and it would be lovely to honour those precious men who tragically lost their lives, leaving their families behind.