Shipwreck Databases Western Australian Museum

Harlequin (1850/09/04)

West Cape Howe

Finders: Eric Christiansen, Douglas Timms, Donald Morrisey & Ted Wolfe
Protection: Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976
Significance criteria: 1, 3 & 8

The Harlequin was owned by Elder and Co. of Adelaide, departing that port for Singapore on 3 August 1850 under the command of Captain Welsh (or Welch) with a crew of eight, and was to call at Albany and Fremantle en route. The captain’s wife of one month was also on board. A newspaper criticized the condition of the rigging of the schooner stating that ‘she was most shamefully found in every respect, and had hardly a whole rope from stem to stern’ (Gazette, 27 September 1850: 2c). The schooner was carrying a very mixed cargo listed by a newspaper as:
937 cakes of copper, 1009 tiles ditto, 116 ingots ditto, 6 bales leather, 20 bags flour, 8 bundles iron, 1 pkg tins, 2 carroteels currants, 17 boxes raisins, 6 ditto wax candles, 12 kegs vinegar, 1 hhd sugar, 300 bags flour, 1 case glassware, 1 cask soda, 1 ditto whiting, 1 box starch, 1 ditto blue, 1 bale bacon, 1 bag nuts, 1 brl walnuts, 5 casks peas, 5 cases oatmeal, 220 bags flour, 8 ditto sugar, 1 case cheese, 5 boxes soap, 1 bale wool bags, 1 case ironmongery, 1 box tea, 2 bags sugar, 2 casks, 2 cases, 1 bundle, Nicholson; 25 bags sugar, Owen; 15 tierces beef, Collinson; 110 boxes soap, Samson; 10 casks beef, 10 bags potatoes, 1 bale leather, Owen (Perth Gazette, 20 September 1850: 2c).

The total weight of the cargo of copper was 30 tons and it was insured with the Adelaide Marine Insurance Company for £2 500. The Harlequin arrived at Albany on 22 August, and after discharging part of the cargo of flour (some 6 tons shipped by W. Owen) and sugar, cleared on 26 August and anchored in King George Sound awaiting suitable weather.

The Harlequin departed King George Sound on Sunday 1 September 1850 and had sailed to a position 36º 49’ south and 114º 51’ east, south-west of Cape Leeuwin, when on 2 September a severe gale struck from the north-west. The schooner lost all its sails and was driven back. The gale then swung to the south-west, and at 3 o’clock in the morning of 4 September the Harlequin was driven on to the coast to the west of West Cape Howe, ‘a locality of the most fearful description for such a mishap, the coast consisting of almost perpendicular rocks of granite, near 200 feet high, and the water at the base having a depth of ten fathoms’ (Gazette, 20 September 1850: 2c). The vessel very quickly began to go to pieces, and three of the crew, the cook, a seaman and a cabin boy, were drowned. It was later stated that the seaman was drunk and made no effort to save himself. Mrs Welsh was three times washed off a spar that the crew were using to help get her ashore. On each occasion she ‘regained it by swimming, an art of which she was before entirely ignorant! and only knew by description’ (ibid.).
The cook attempted to save his life by grasping at the dress of Mrs Welsh, who had gained a small rock; and as his efforts threatened the loss of her life, and could not save his own, his hold was broken off by one of the sailors, and he sank (Inquirer, 18 September 1850: 2c).

Mrs Welsh had been asleep below, and was dressed only in a night dress. The body of the drowned sailor was located on a ledge of rock, so his trousers were removed and given to her to wear. The survivors were saved by a sailor climbing the cliff with a rope, which, after fastening one end, he lowered to the others. This enabled them to climb the rocks, and finally Mrs Welsh was hauled up. In a letter to the vessel’s owners in Adelaide, an Albany resident, P. Belches, stated:
I know the spot where it happened; had she struck three or four times her own length either to the westward or eastward of where she did, none of the crew would have been saved (quoted in The Courier, 2 November 1850: 2).

The survivors then set off through the dense bush towards Albany, some 36 kilometres away, where they arrived exhausted but safe on the afternoon of 7 September. As destitute seamen they were provided with board and lodging, paid for by the Government Resident at a cost of 12 shillings each per week. Captain and Mrs Welsh and four of the crew were later taken to Adelaide on the brig Calder, which had been sailing from Singapore to Adelaide and had called in at King George Sound.

A newspaper advised of the sale of the wreck of the Harlequin:
By a letter we have received from our correspondent at Albany, we hear that the wreck (or rather the remnants) of the ill-fated Harlequin, consisting of kelson, forefoot, capstan, chain, and anchors, and all she had in her, were sold by Auction for the benefit of the underwriters, for the sum of £45 (Perth Gazette, 1 November 1850: 3b-c).

The purchasers were James Cooper and John Williams. Despite Captain Welsh having stated after inspecting the wreck site that the cargo was irrecoverable, Cooper and Williams recovered one ton of copper only a few days after purchasing the wreck. This copper was presumably on a reef, as the paper stated that there was only two feet (0.6 m) of water over it, and that the rest was clearly visible. The salvors confidently expected to recover it. They also hoped to be able to raise the ‘sheet lead, chain, anchors, &c., worth £100 more’ (ibid.).

There is also a reference to Aborigines bringing copper bars to a farmer living in the vicinity of the wreck, and some salvage by local people using a bullock team, the salvaged material being sold in Albany (MA 195/72).

The wreck of the Harlequin lies on a rock ledge on the second small beach west of West Cape Howe, below a steep, rugged gully. This gully is known as Copper Gully, and was where salvaged material was hauled up for loading on carts at the top of the cliff. The position is approximately eight kilometres west of West Cape Howe, and 400 metres east of Bornholm Beach.

Although Scott Sledge of the Western Australian Museum attempted a wreck inspection of the Harlequin in December 1974, he was unable to dive on the site due to the dangerous surf. This is a feature of the site, and the Museum has been unable to accurately plot the exact position of the wreck. In September 2001 Don Phillips reported the finding of an anchor and a bale of raw rubber. The anchor may have come from the Harlequin; the rubber would have most probably been from the wreck of the Michael J Galoundris (see entry). Besides this anchor and another close by, there is further site some 70 metres away where material has been found which may have come from the Harlequin. Taking into account the often violent wave conditions at this site, the wreck material may be scattered over a considerable area.

The Department of Maritime Archaeology, Western Australian Museum, has recovered a number of artefacts from the wreck of the Harlequin including a large shackle, rudder gudgeon and a hook.

The cargo on board the Harlequin gives an insight into the wide variety of goods carried between developing state economies in Australia and older established trading partners on the Indian Ocean rim.

The circumstances associated with the rescue of Mrs Welsh are a pointer to the social mores of the day. It appears that the life of the cook was deliberately shortened in order that she could be saved.

On a lighter note, the newspaper reporter was obviously astounded that she could swim, having never done so before!

The Harlequin is representative of the many smaller vessels which traded around the Australian coast and to ports such as Singapore and Port Louis in Mauritius.

CSR Volume 202, Folios 150, 151 & 152. State Records Office.

Henderson, G., 2007, Unfinished Voyages: Western Australian Shipwrecks 1622-1850. University of Western Australia Press, Crawley.

Inquirer and Commercial News, 18 September 1850: 2c, 25 September 1850: 3b & 9 October 1850: 3b.

Stone, P., 2006, Encyclopedia of Australian Shipwrecks and Other Maritime Incidents, Including Vessels lost Overseas, Merchant Ships Lost at War, and Those Lost on Inland Waters, Together with a Bibliography of Vessel Entries. Ocean Enterprises, Yarram, Victoria.

Sydney Morning Herald, 25 October 1850: 2 & 26 October, 1850: 4.

The Courier, 2 November 1850: 2.

The Perth Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News, 13 September 1850: 2d, 20 September 1850: 2c, 27 September 1850: 2c & 1 November 1850: 3b-c.

Western Australian Museum, Department of Maritime Archaeology, File No. MA 430/71 - Harlequin

The Harlequin was lost at Knapp Head west of Albany on September 4,1850, during a violent northwest gale. It was on a voyage from Adelaide to Singapore with a cargo of flour, sugar and copper. Aboard were the master, Mr. Walsh, his wife, and eight crew. Three of the crew lost their lives. Seven survivors (including Mr. and Mrs. Walsh) walked overland to Albany. The site has been located but is heavily broken up.

Map of Batavia

Ship Built

Owner Potter and Company

Master Walsh, J.

Country Built UK

Port Built Liverpool

Port Registered Glasgow

When Built 1840

Ship Lost

Gouped Region South-Coast

Crew 9

Deaths 3

When Lost 1850/09/04

Where Lost West Cape Howe

Latitude -35.083333333

Longitude 117.55

Position Information *Check position

Port From Adelaide

Port To Singapore

Cargo 937 cakes of copper, 1009 tiles ditto, 116 ingots ditto, 6 bales leather, 20 bags of Hour, 8 bundles iron, 1 pkg tins, 2 carroteels currants, 17 boxes raisins, 6 do wax candles, 12 kegs vinegar, 1 hhd. sugar, 3C0 bags of flour, 1 case glassware, 1 cask soda, 1 do whiting, 1 box starch, 1 do blue, 1 bale bacon, 1 bag nuts, 1 bri walnuts, 6 casks of peas, 5 casks oatmeul, 220 bags flour, 8 do sugar, 1 case cheese, 5 boxes soap, 1 bale wool bags, 1 case iron- mongery, 1 box tea; 2 bags sugar, 2 casks, 2 cases 1 bundle, Nicholson, 25 bags sugar, Owen ; 15 tierces beef, Collinson ; 110 boxes soap, Samson ; 10 casks beef, 10 bags potatoes, 1 bale leather,Fix this

Ship Details

Engine N

Length 21.95

Beam 5.73

TONA 138.00

TONB 149.00

Draft 3.96

Museum Reference

Unique Number 1229

Sunk Code Wrecked and sunk

File Number 430/71, 195/72

Chart Number 1034

Protected Protected Federal

Found Y

Inspected Y

Confidential NO