Shipwreck Databases Western Australian Museum

James Service (1878/07/22)

Five Fathom Bank, Murray River Area

James Service was built at Glasgow in Scotland by Dobie and Co. and launched in October 1869. It had a clinker plated hull, two decks, a round stern, one bulkhead and a demi figurehead of a man. It had a raised quarterdeck 4.3 m long, and a forecastle 5.8 m in length and had been cemented. The owners were Archibald Currie & Co. of Melbourne, who used it in trading between Melbourne and Calcutta. After discharging a cargo of jarrah sleepers which had been loaded at Rockingham, the barque departed Calcutta in late April 1878 for Melbourne. It was under the command of Captain R. Young, had a crew of First Mate Grimes, Second Mate David Foreman and seven Malays. It also had on board ten passengers. Seven of these passengers were from a theatrical party under the leadership of Mr J.W. Kelly. Named passengers were Mr & Mrs Cowdery (Mrs Cowdery had the stage name of Miss Bessie Edwards), Mr & Miss Williams, P.B. Smith, and W. Phillips. These were the only passengers whose names were listed in contemporary Melbourne and Perth newspapers.
The cargo consisted of 3 000 cases of castor oil, 1?000 bales of sack bags and 600 bales of jute.
In the Bay of Bengal the James Service was becalmed for sixteen days, during which Captain Young suffered serious sunstroke and became delirious and paranoid. As he was not capable of commanding the vessel, the first mate, Grimes, took command and sailed it to Penang in Malaya. In Penang the captain was charged with imperilling the vessel through his incompetence. The hearing upheld the charge but found that it was due to ill health, and he was therefore unfit to continue command. The ship’s agents then gave command to Captain Seivwright, and the James Service left for Melbourne on 7 June 1878. The route from Penang and around Cape Leeuwin should have kept the barque well offshore and clear of all dangers. A severe gale from the north-west had been blowing for some days prior to the wreck of the barque.
The exact circumstances regarding the loss of the James Service are not known. On 23 July 1878 William Eacott reported to Constable Robert Holmes at Mandurah the sighting of a wreck west of the mouth of the Peel Inlet. Holmes later wrote to his superintendent:
I beg to report for the information of the Supt. of Police that William Eacott Junior reported in Mandurah on 23 inst. that a Vessel was on the South end of Murray reef and hearing this report I started at once for Mr. Hall’s hill where we saw with the glass a Vessel about 7 miles off foundered. I returned at once & despatched my Native to Pinjarrah with Telegrams. I then proceeded on the North Beach in company with Mr. C. Tuckey. When about three miles on the Beach we found a Boat on Shore marked on stem James Service Melbourne. She had one oar & one crutch in Board & Rudder & Painter gone—no sign of tracks whatever. We also found several cases of Passenger’s Luggage comprising clothing, books, etc. etc. apparently belonging to Theatrical Performers all now in charge of Mr. C. Tuckey by order of the Collector of Customs. The Beach is literally strewed with cases of castor oil.
I started this morning in company with P.C. Offer [John Offer] on the North Beach with the view of finding some Dead Bodys [sic]. We patrolled the beach for 14 miles without success. We found the remains of two or three Boats on shore and marked James Service Melbourne & several pieces wood marked the same. I will have the beach patrolled daily for some trace & report results as regular as possible.
Robert Holmes, P.C.
(Police Department General File 1878, quoted in Richards, 1978: 417)
As there were several vessels overdue the initial report caused some anxiety for their safety, but it soon became clear that this was not a local vessel. On 31 July the newspapers reported that ‘the hull appears to have been wrenched asunder by the shock caused by collidence with the rocks, and is lying detached in the wide crevices of the reef’ (Inquirer, 31 July 1878: 3d). Part of the James Service was still visible above water over two weeks after striking the reef. ‘A small part of her port bow with nameboard on was visible a short time since, but I fear that this westerly weather will put her out of sight altogether’ (Inquirer; 7 August 1878: 3d).
There were no survivors. Over a number of days, starting on 25 July, many bodies were found scattered along a 65 kilometre stretch of the coast. The first, identified as that of Mrs Towers, was taken to Fremantle, next to be found was Mrs Cowdery on 27 July, who was buried at Christ’s Church in Mandurah. Her husband’s body was not found until some time later and 48 km south of the Peel Inlet. He, along with what was presumed to be the mate’s body, a Malay crewman, and three more bodies found in early August, were also buried at Mandurah. Seven others were so decomposed that they were buried in the sand hills south of the Peel Inlet near where they were found.
In 1973 a skull found in some sand dunes was believed to be that of one of the victims who had been buried there. It is possible that the skull belonged to the body found by Constable Holmes 12 days after the wreck, about 6.5 km south of the Peel Inlet. He reported it to be ‘evidently a white man…male…5 ft. 8 in…dressed in a tweed suit…in a very decomposed state’ which he ‘buried next morning on the beach as I could not remove or yet coffin him…’ (Police report by Constable Holmes who was responsible for the identification, recording and interment of the bodies, a very difficult task as so many were badly decomposed and disfigured; quoted in WAM File MA 66/74).
A diary, said to be in a woman’s handwriting, which washed ashore stated that for a few days prior to 20 July the vessel had experienced a period of very rough weather, being at one time on its beam ends with the yards touching the water. It was speculated in the press that the very strong north-west gale which had been blowing for some days had set the James Service on to the coast, and that it had struck the reef during the night, sinking before anything could be done to save lives (Inquirer, 31 July 1878).
Besides the bodies and flotsam noted above there were also trunks and packages bearing the names Miss Bessie Edwards, Royal Theatre, Calcutta; H. Williams; J.W. Reddie; and J. Steeler, together with thousands of tins of castor oil, cabin fittings, decking and other items. In November 1878 the wreck was sold at an auction for £20, and late in the year a diver examining the wreck reported that the hull had broken in two.
One of the boats from the James Service was acquired by the Tuckey family, rigged as a cutter and named Ellen.
The wreck of the James Service lies at the southern end of Murray Reef on a bearing of 335º from Robert Point.
The wreckage from the James Service lies in 3–4 m of water and is scattered over an area approximately 55 m long by 12 m wide, with the main axis of the keel running about east-west, with the bow pointing west. While much of the plating has disappeared many of the frames are still clearly visible. The bow, canted to starboard, has collapsed but the bowsprit is still in place. The stern, which is in better condition, lies on a sandy bottom in 10 m of water, and rises to within 3 m of the surface. Part of the steering gear is visible, as are some of the masts, a winch and various ship’s fittings.
Prior to 1976, when the wreck of the James Service was gazetted as an historic shipwreck, local divers recovered items from the wreck. An anchor raised in 1962 has been placed near the grave of some of the victims in the cemetery at Christ’s Church in Mandurah, together with a spider band from the mizen mast.
Over the years erosion of the coastal sand hills has uncovered skeletal remains of some of those victims buried close to where they were found. During the mid 1970s the remains of two individuals were recovered by the Western Australian Museum.
A 6.6 m section of the mizen mast from the James Service was given to the Mandurah Community Museum by the Western Australian Museum, Fremantle.

Ship Built

Owner James Service of Melbourne

Master Captain Sievwright

Builder Dobie and Co.

Country Built Scotland

Port Built Govan

Port Registered Melbourne

When Built 1869

Ship Lost

Gouped Region Metro

Deaths All

When Lost 1878/07/22

Where Lost Five Fathom Bank, Murray River Area

Latitude -32.458

Longitude 115.6641666667

Position Information GPS

Port From Calcutta

Port To Melbourne

Cargo Sacks, castor oil, jute

Ship Details

Engine N

Length 46.90

Beam 8.57

TONA 441.00

Draft 4.60

Museum Reference

Official Number 55609

Unique Number 1290

Sunk Code Wrecked and sunk

File Number 2009/0136/SG _MA-66/74

Chart Number PWD 52603, DMH 277

Protected Protected Federal

Found Y

Inspected Y

Date Inspected 1991/12

Confidential NO