The Intrigue of the SS Douglas Mawson 

Dr Michael Tracey BA (Hons), PhD (ANU)

& Dr Jennifer Lambert Tracey BA (ANU), M.App.Sc.(UC), PhD (UC).



Australian Sea Heritage

Sydney Maritime Museum

PO Box 431

Rozelle NSW 2039

Telephone (02) 9810 2299

Facsimile (02) 9810 1756 


Sydney Maritime Museum Ltd: ISSN 0813 0523.

Australian Sea Heritage, Sydney Maritime Museum, Number 57.


The Magazine of the Sydney Heritage Fleet, Sydney Maritime Museum and this paper are copyright. Apart from any fair dealings for the purposes of study, research, criticism or review as permitted under the Copyright Act, no part may be reproduced by any means without permission. Enquires should be made to the Publisher or Author.


Bibliographic Reference:

Tracey, M. M. and Lambert Tracey, J., 1999. ‘The intrigue of the SS Douglas Mawson’, Australian Sea Heritage, Sydney Maritime Museum, Number 57, Sydney.

The Intrigue of the SS Douglas Mawson 

Dr Michael Tracey BA (Hons), PhD (ANU)

& Dr Jennifer Lambert Tracey BA (ANU), M.App.Sc.(UC), PhD (UC).

An archaeological survey identified a sawmill and its relationship to shipbuilding. Further archaeological investigation may close the history on a vessel of intrigue.

Figure 1: SS DOUGLAS MAWSON of 1914, in service at Nambucca Heads NSW. The vessel sank in 1923 in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

The archaeological remains of a coastal sawmill are located on a rocky headland adjoining two small sandy beaches at Bawley Point on the south coast of NSW. The sawmill operated between 1892 and 1922 and was reliant upon a crude but effective tramway for transportation of logs felled in the nearby Termeil State Forest and Kioloa State Forest. In the early 1900s, a wooden hulled steamship the SS DOUGLAS MAWSON, was built and launched from Bawley Point. A marine and terrestrial archaeological survey of the shipyard was undertaken. The stumps of many trees felled for crooks, frames and keelson used in the construction of the vessel were located in the two forests.

Shipwrights built wooden vessels that were specifically designed for 'near coastal trade' or on coastal rivers. The rivers provided the transportation conduits enabling the opening of the vast pastoral lands of the interior. Timber, a vital commodity in the developing nation, was milled and transported from remote areas to the central market where larger ocean-going vessels shipped it to markets overseas. Alternatively it was consumed by the local economy for construction purposes in the growing cities. The SS DOUGLAS MAWSON was designed and built to act as a coastal transport steamship to support this industry.  The New South Wales coast can be considerably dangerous for small coastal vessels due to the occurrence of severe storms, exposure to heavy seas and coastal currents. In 1897 and 1898 respectively, the BONNIE DUNDEE, whose remains have now been located, and the schooner Gleaner were wrecked during storms and sank while loading timber at Bawley Point. The loss and replacement cost of such vessels would have been an economic burden to the company involved especially during the 1890s depression.

In 1912 shipwright and timber merchant Francis Guy sold Bawley Point Sawmill to A. & E. Ellis of Sydney. The Ellis company realised that a steamship was a necessity to transport their milled product. The urgent need for reliable ships had also been obvious to the enterprise of Allen Taylor. Taylor held extensive interests in the timber industry including shipbuilding yards. His sales representative in America, R. Anderson, had commented many times that the industry had urgent need for such vessels as early as 1904. According to an arrangement involving a, 1500 share transfer with Allen Taylor and J. Wright, Shipwright, a half interest was acquired from C. McClure of Woolwich in the MSS Bellinger. As a result of this transaction Allen Taylor acquired interests in A. & E. Ellis and the option to nominate a director on the board of the Ellis Company. Taylor used this association to instigate the construction of another vessel and, in 1912, commissioned shipwright Alfred William Morrow Settree, to undertake construction of a suitable ship.

The SS DOUGLAS MAWSON (333 tons) was built using timbers specially selected by the shipwright from the hinterland. The frames of the vessel were cut from selected trees that were curved and over 600 'crooks' were cut for a vessel this size. The trees were felled, the logs were sawn to size in the Bawley Point sawmill and stacked for up to three months for seasoning. Shipwrights in the adjacent shipyard then had direct access to the timber. Timbers required to build this one vessel would have made a major impact on the surrounding forests as approximately 750 trees were felled for its construction.


Figure 2: A. E. Ellis Bawley Point sawmill c.1909. The SS DOUGLAS MAWSON was built on the rocky point to the left of the main sawmill.


 Figure 3: The remains of the Bawley Point sawmill today. The slipway is near the motor vehicles in the background.

Side planking of spotted gum, Eucalyptus maculata, was cut in single lengths 30 x 13 cm [12 x 5 in] and where extra strength was needed, 30 x 19 cm [12 x 7 1/2 in] lengths of up to 15.24 m [50 ft] were used. These planks alone could weigh up to 200 kg [440 lbs]. Keel timbers of ironbark, E. fibrosa, were scarf-jointed together to attain the necessary length and weighed in excess of 2 tonnes [2.20 tons]. Some keel and keelson timbers were too large for the mill to handle and were hand cut and trimmed with broad-axes and crosscut saws in the forest. They were then transported by dray and on the horse-drawn tramway to the shipyard. The vessel was originally designed to have one propeller, however, during the course of construction it was modified to take twin propellers. These were engineered by Morts Dock Engineering Sydney and fitted by Chapman & Co. Engineering.

Settree commented 'It will be a launching and a shipwreck as well!' as the SS DOUGLAS MAWSON was launched broadside into the sea. Settree's words were directed towards the unusual broadside method of launching, however, he had forecast the fate of the vessel. Within ten years the vessel would be wrecked, prompting years of investigation and mystery surrounding her sinking and the fate of her 21 crew and passengers. The saga of the LOCH ARD, wrecked in 1874, lingered in the media for many years and included specious representations of marriage between the sole survivor Evaline Carmichael and the reluctant hero apprentice Tom Pearse. The public outcry and journalistic hysteria generated over the wreck of the LOCH ARD but a murmur in comparison to the stories of the sinking of the SS DOUGLAS MAWSON in local and international press. Tales of murder, rape, cannibalism, torture and slavery were to persist up to the late 1960s and remain part of the folklore of the Mawson saga.

The SS DOUGLAS MAWSON was launched from Bawley Point on 11 April 1914. The location of the slipway near to the timber supply and depth of water influenced Settree to employ broadside method of launching. In 1909 Settree built and later launched the SS DUMARESQ broadside into Wollongong Harbour. This method of launching is supported by the extant archaeological evidence for the standing ways at both sites. This irregular method held the inherent danger of the ship overturning on entry into the water.

Her sister ship SS OUR ELSIE towed the hull to Chapman's & Co Engineering, Sydney for the fitting of chandlery, engineering requisites and propulsion units. Research establishes that after fitting out, the vessel did not work the south coast as postulated by many, but entered service on the north coast, steaming between Sydney and Nambucca Heads. Her life was not to be easy and the vessel founded several times on the north coast run in bad weather. The ability of the SS DOUGLAS MAWSON to steer in heavy winds and seas may have been affected by the conversion to twin propellers during construction.

Following a short service in Western Australia the vessel was eventually sold to the Queensland Government in 1918. In 1923, en route from Burketown to Thursday Island, she was overwhelmed by a cyclone in the Gulf of Carpentaria. The SS DOUGLAS MAWSON sank with all hands lost.   An extensive land and sea search followed and continued with a Royal Commission in 1928. Stories of the capture of two female members of the Willett family by the Aborigines near Caledon Bay were to persist in the media for many decades. Public outrage ensued when reports that the Willett women had born children while held captive.  The saga of the SS DOUGLAS MAWSON is being researched and published by the author. An archaeological investigation to locate and identify the wreck site of the vessel is planned. The comparison of the wood used in the vessel's construction, the composition of the muntz metal fittings and the pitch used, an analysis of the paint and the serial numbers of her engines will positively identify the SS DOUGLAS MAWSON and end the saga.

The slipway for the construction of the SS DOUGLAS MAWSON was located north-east of the sawmill approximately 180 m from the boiler shed. A large area of flat bedrock slopes gently to the east into a small rocky bay where it is near to relatively deep water of 1.6 to 2.7 fathoms [3 to 5 m] to the north-east. Evidence for the slipway remains as 5 x 25.4-mm [1in] steel pins embedded into the rock. These affixed the standing way to the rock bed. The top and side of the standing way and the underside of the sliding way were painted with tallow when they were initially constructed. Before launching, buckets of boiling water were thrown over the greased surfaces to assist the movement of the sliding way and hence the transportation of the hull into the open sea. The completed hull at launching was 45 m [147 ft 7 in] in length. The pins are in the correct position to have held fast the timber runners used in the launching process.

Small quantities of pitch are present on the rocks in this area. The glue-like composition of the pitch has provided a strong bond with the surface of the rock ensuring its preservation. The pitch is further evidence for the shipbuilding activities at the site. Pitch was heated in a cauldron and kept in a molten state over a fire while caulking the vessel. After the decking was layed on the ship it was necessary to caulk between the planks. Twisted oakum rope, the primary caulking material was hammered into position and held secure by a quantity of molten pitch poured over the caulking rope with a small ladle. When the pitch had solidified, the excess was cut away to smooth the deck. Over 250 wooden ships were built in the Bateman Bay, Moray, Aroma and Tetra areas and Bawley Point is possibly the only site where evidence of this type of shipbuilding remains on the New South Wales south coast. Such information is important to the understanding of the spread of settlement, as the Colony was heavily dependent upon marine transportation. Only one ship was constructed during the operation of the Bawley Point Sawmill and the slipway site offers a unique combination of evidence including that of the construction method for that one particular type of wooden ship. Most other sites along the coast where construction of similar vessels occurred during this period have been destroyed by continued development. The slipway site is worthy of further investigation for the greater understanding of early industrial techniques in Australia. The deteriorating condition of the artefacts on the site, exposure to the elements and the continued public use of this area for car parking necessitates urgency for such an archaeological investigation.


Heritage Archaeology ~ Historical, Archaeological & Genealogical Research Consultants

 (Copyright 2013)

Saturday, 09 May 2015