'The SS Douglas Mawson - 'A Launching and a Shipwreck.'

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


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Bulletin of  the Australasian Institute for Maritime Archaeology
Volume 21, No 1 & 2. 

NOTE: The use of the classification 'SS' e.g. 'Steam Ship' used at the time of publication of this paper. Continued research on the vessel established that the ship was classified as the 'TSS' e.g 'Twin Screw Steamer'. She  later became the 'QGS' e.g Queensland Government Ship.

 Bibliographic Reference:
Tracey, M, M., 1997, 'The SS Douglas Mawson - A launching and a shipwreck', The Bulletin of the Australasian Institute for Maritime Archaeology, Volume 21, No 1 & 2, pp 9-18.

'The SS Douglas Mawson - 'A Launching and a Shipwreck.'


The archaeological remains of a small coastal sawmill that operated between 1892 and 1922 are located at Bawley Point, between Ulladulla and Batemans Bay, on the south coast of NSW ([606170-026268] Kioloa 8926-1-N 1:25k). Bawley Point is a rocky headland adjoining two small sandy beaches, Bawley Beach and Cormorant Beach.

The area is surrounded by the Termeil Forest to the north-west and Kioloa State Forest to south-west. A unique feature of the sawmill was its immediate location on the rocky headland to make use of marine transportation (Fig. 2). To the north-west of Bawley Point is Willinga Lake and to the south, the terrain is sparsely vegetated and swampy, with small pockets of elevated land upon which some eucalypts thrive. The sawmill was reliant upon the tramway for transportation of logs felled in the hinterland (Tracey, 1997, Hannah, 1986:15).

Fig. 1. Location map of Bawley Point showing tramways.

The archaeological remains of a small coastal sawmill that operated between 1892 and 1922 are located at Bawley Point, between Ulladulla and Batemans Bay, on the south coast of NSW ([606170-026268] Kioloa 8926-1-N 1:25k). Bawley Point is a rocky headland adjoining two small sandy beaches, Bawley Beach and Cormorant Beach.

Fig. 2. Bawley Point headland (A) Anchoring points for loading facilities and remains of tramway machinery on sea-bed (B) Shipbuilding yard (C) Loading area (D) Sawmill remains.

The area is surrounded by the Termeil Forest to the north-west and Kioloa State Forest to southwest. A unique feature of the sawmill was its immediate location on the rocky headland to make use of marine transportation (Fig. 2). To the northwest of Bawley Point is Willinga Lake and to the south, the terrain is sparsely vegetated and swampy, with small pockets of elevated land upon which some eucalypts thrive. The sawmill was reliant upon the tramway for transportation of logs felled in the hinterland (Tracey, 1997, Hannah, 1986:15). In the early 1900s a timber steamship the SS Douglas Mawson was built and launched from Bawley Point. A marine and terrestrial archaeological survey of the shipyard was undertaken in 1995 and the construction methods and remains of the slipways were recorded. The stumps of many trees felled for crooks, frames and keelson for the building of the vessel were located in the Termeil and Kioloa Forests surrounding Bawley Point.

History of the SS Douglas Mawson
'It will be a launching and a shipwreck as well!' With these words from the vessel's builder, Alfred R. Settree, the SS Douglas Mawson was launched broadside into the sea. Even though Settree's words were directed towards the unusual broadside method of launching he had forecast the fate of the vessel. Within ten years the SS Douglas Mawson would be wrecked, prompting years of investigation and mystery surrounding her sinking and the fate of her 21 crew and passengers.

Fig. 3. The SS Douglas Mawson under steam at Nambucca Heads with a cargo of sawn timber.

The recorded history of the spread of settlement is endowed with the reports of many shipwrecks and many authors have eulogised these vessels and their stalwart crews. The wreck of the Loch Ard in 1874 saw one of the last sleek and swift wooden, gold cutters pass into Australia's maritime history. The saga of the Loch Ard was to linger in the Australian media for many years with false representations of marriage between the sole survivor Evaline Carmichael and the reluctant hero apprentice crewman Tom Pearse (Charlwood, 1971). The story eventually slipped out of vogue as silently as sail and wooden hulls gave way to iron and steam.

The public outcry and journalistic hysteria generated over the wreck of the Loch Ard was but a murmur in comparison to the effect the sinking of the SS Douglas Mawson was to have in local and international press. The rumours and hysteria generated by the media regarding the  Loch Ard paled into insignificance in light of the gross misreporting inflicted on the Australian public by an over zealous and scurrilous phalanx of correspondence describing the SS Douglas Mawson's disappearance. Tales of murder, rape, cannibalism, torture and slavery were to persist in the press up to the 1960s and remain part of the folklore of the Mawson saga.

The SS Douglas Mawson was launched on 11 April 1914, and was towed by her sister ship SS Our Elsie to Sydney for the fitting of chandlery, engineering requisites and propulsion units (Settree, 1994: pers. comm; Lloyd's Register 1918, Moruya Examiner, 25 April 1914). Research shows that after fitting out, the vessel did not work the south coast but went into service on the north coast steaming between Sydney and Nambucca Heads (Nambucca and Bellinger News 1914, 1916, Macleay Chronicle 1915). The vessel was sold to the Queensland Government in 1918 and during 1923, en route from Burketown to Thursday Island, was overwhelmed by a cyclone in the Gulf of Carpentaria. The SS Douglas Mawson sank with all hands (Aust. Arch. Queensland B P 200, Morning Bulletin 5, April 1923, 5, The Brisbane Courier 8, May 1923, 5, AA ACT A3/1NT1924/4772, Whittingham, 1969:79).

The forest industry
Industries, such as forestry, developed slowly in the Colony and gradually the struggling settlement became less dependent on Britain for supply of basic building and construction material (Bach, 1976). Nevertheless it was to remain reliant on sea transport until the event of rail for the bulk trade and supply. Along the south-east coast of New South Wales a shipbuilding industry developed within the forest industry and many small shipyards were established and flourished (Pacey, 1990). 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. Towards the end of the nineteenth century these sawmills and shipyards would become involved in the construction of mining dredges that saw service on the goldfields of the Shoalhaven Valley (McGowan, 1996:22-40, Tracey, [J], 1997). Timber was a vital commodity in the developing nation. Milled timber was transported from remote areas to the central market where larger ocean-going vessels shipped it to overseas markets. Alternatively it was consumed by the local economy for construction purposes in the growing cites (Hamon, 1994). Other cargoes were carried on the coastal traders. However, it is unsure what exactly was carried owing to lack of official records or ships' manifests. However, workers' goods and chattels were reported to be off-loaded at Bawley Point. It is probable the vessels transported whatever commodities provided an income. The SS Douglas Mawson was designed and built to act as a coastal transport in these waters.

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 (Andrews, 1983; Hannah, 1986:59; Toghill, 1984 173-179). In 1897 and 1898 respectively, the Bonnie Dundee and the schooner Gleaner (115 tons [104.32 tonnes]) were wrecked during storms and sank while loading timber at Bawley Point. The loss and the replacement cost of any vessel would have been a major economic burden to the company involved especially during the 1890s depression. Shipbuilding became a major activity with the availability of suitable timbers, especially spotted gum - Eucalyptus maculata, attracting shipwrights to the area (Kerr 1985:138; 1987:66; Settree, 1994: pers. comm.).  

'He [A. W. Settree] built boats in these particular places because the timber was readily available. He always built near a big saw mill' (Settree in Kerr, 1985:114, 138; Settree, 1994: pers. comm.).

Fig. 4. The SS Douglas Mawson under  construction on Bawley Point in 1912  (Photograph courtesy A. Settree).

When Francis Guy, the owner of the Bawley Point Sawmill, sold it to A. E. Ellis and Company of Sydney c.1912, a steamship was required to transport their milled product. The urgent need for reliable ships had 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 (NBAC 44/3 P 80). According to an arrangement involving a 1500 share transfer with Allen Taylor and Company, and J. Wright, Shipwright, a half interest was acquired from C. McClure of Woolwich in the MSS Bellinger (NBAC 40\1 p, 168, NBAC 40\1 p 175, Brown up. 1957). As a result of this transaction Allen Taylor and Company acquired interests in A. and 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 Alfred W. Settree, to undertake construction of a suitable ship.

The SS Douglas Mawson (333 tons [302.09 tonnes]) was built using timbers specially selected by the shipwright from the forest hinterland. The frames of the vessel were cut from selected trees that were curved and over 600 'crooks' may have been cut for a vessel this size (Settree, 1994: pers. comm.). The trees were felled, the logs were sawn to size in the sawmill and stacked for seasoning in the yards adjoining for up to three months. Shipwrights working at the site then had direct access to the timber for construction. Timbers required to build this one ship would have made a major impact on the surrounding forest as approximately 750 trees were taken for its construction (Settree, 1994: pers. comm.). 

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 (Kerr, 1985:138, Settree, 1994: pers. comm.). These planks alone could weigh up to 200 kg [440 lbs]. Keel timbers of ironbark, Eucalyptus 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 cross-cut saws in the forest. They were then transported on a horse-drawn wooden tramway to the shipyard (Tracey, 1994, 1997). The construction and service of this vessel is important to demonstrate that the mill was not entirely dependent upon export or commercial markets, but whatever projects would provide income. Shipbuilding was a complex and demanding operation requiring special cuts of selected timbers, special metal fittings and skilled craftspersons.

Archaeological evidence
Many stumps of trees remain in the dense vegetation along Stephens Creek both to the east and west of the present bridge over the new Princes Highway (Fig. 1). The terrain is steep with many small gullies and there appears to be no evidence of snigging tracks leading towards loading points. The limited visibility in the area may prevent such identification or the construction of the highway and later forest operations may have destroyed these tracks. Several spotted gums with girths of up to 1 m have been cut approximately 3 to 4 m above ground level. Springboard slots remaining in the trees are spaced about 1 m apart and the upper sections of the trees have been cut with an axe as evidenced by the crescent shaped scars.

Fig. 5. Remains of a tree trunk at Stephens Creek.

There was no evidence of the upper section of the tree remaining on the ground. This occurred at several locations within the study area. The reason such large useable sections of the trunks were wasted posed a question as to why the trees were felled in this manner. Griffiths (1992:86) maintains under normal operating procedures that tall stumps represented wasted timber and poor forest management. However, in this case, the answer lay in the method of timber selection by shipwrights and the cutting of various components for shipbuilding purposes that occurred at Bawley Point.


Fig. 6. The Shipwright selects the section of the tree required from the crook or other part of the vessel.

Crooks, frames and elbows were selected from parts of trunks or large branches that were the general shape of the required component could be sawn from the selected section of the tree (Kerr, 1985:138; Settree 1994: pers. comm., SMM T87002).

The construction of the hull of a wooden ship such as the SS Douglas Mawson, would require up to 750 trees to be felled to supply the timber necessary (Settree 1994: pers. comm.). The selection would account for the reason only certain trees were taken and others in the immediate vicinity that were larger and of more useable straight timber were left. The absence of snigging tracks may also be explained by the fact that these special timbers were smaller and lighter than timber taken for general milling and could have been snigged through the forest with one or two horses or a single bullock. Lighter logs, once felled, were often transported on a dray (Settree, 1994: pers. comm.).

The shipwright selected a section of a tree that was best suited to the shape needed for a crook for the vessel. It may include the trunk and branches. The on-site field evidence remains as the tree stump, after the section required had been taken. The branch may have been cut to size with a broad-axe in the forest. The section was then shaped to fit with an axe and the stern-post is seen in place in the stern of the vessel under construction (Fig. 7). 

Fig. 7. The section is cut from the tree, milled, shaped and placed in position in the frame of the vessel.  While the vessel under construction is not the SS Douglas Mawson, similar work practises were followed in its construction (Settree 1996 pers comm.)

Along the ridge on Bawley Point, south-west of the sawmill site, archaeological remains indicate a confined area of industrial activity. Ferrous and non-ferrous artefacts, cast fragment, firebricks and the remains of firepits, provide evidence that supports that this area was used for blacksmithing. There are no extant surface structures, and artefacts lay on the surface covered in places by sparse vegetation. When 60% of this area was graded down to bedrock by Shoalhaven City Council to provide car parking facilities, many artefacts were exposed. Although some were no longer in their archaeological context, they have been invaluable in identifying applied technologies of the period.

An area 12 x 12 m surrounding the site was marked out and further divided into 3 x 3 m squares with a string line. A surface survey revealed the remains of the compressed clay floor and evidence of at least three firepits. Broken glass, a large quantity of unidentified steel fragments and irregular shaped nodules of non-ferrous metal evidently molten before solidification, were located. Seven fragments of non-ferrous metal (Muntz metal) and one large steel nodule were recovered in the graded area. These have the distinctive features of slag from a casting process and further investigation of this site, regarding the probability of early casting techniques being applied, is advocated. The smaller nodules may be consistent with slag produced during the oxy-acetylene welding process, however, they do not display a 'chill point' common to such slag. This point is formed when the molten material first touches the ground or other surface and chills quickly leaving a stressed and flattened surface. The presence of the large nodule would also discount this as welding slag, unless the operator was an extremely inept craftsperson. To have formed this nodule, the metal would have needed to be in a molten state for several minutes at a temperature maintained at approximately 797.77° C [1468° F]. 

A cast fitting made from beryllium bronze, characterised by its pinkish colour and hardness on testing with a file, was found on top of the firepit. Beryllium bronze was used in high-pressure fittings or in castings where a greater tactile strength was required such as in a part that wears when in contact with hardened steel. Bearings for overhead machinery in the mill or for propeller shafts may have been made from this type of material. The artefact recovered has been subjected to sufficient heat to melt a section of it. This form of bronze has a melting point of around 865.5° C (1590°).

Fig. 8. Steel and Muntz metal casing slag from the blacksmith's shop.


Fig. 9. Muntz metal dumps and bolts used in the  construction of the SS Douglas Mawson A Cast bolt for general purpose joining 25 x 13 mm (9 ¼ in x ½ in). B Cast bolt with square collar uses to bolt frames  timbers 235 x 19 mm (9 ¼ in x ¾ in). C Dump use for general fitting 140 x 13 mm (5 ½ in x ½ in). D Dump used to secure decking 100 x 9.5 mm (4 in x 3/8 in).

Iron and steel nails, spikes, and bolts were supplied by the mill's blacksmith for the construction of the slipways and sheds. Nodules of solidified molten metal may indicate that certain castings, alpha plus beta brasses (Muntz metal), were cast and supplied locally. Muntz metal was used to cast bolts that held the frames of the ship together. These bolts were 23 cm in length x 2 cm with a round flat head followed by a squared section on the shaft 1 cm in length that bit into the timber and prevented the bolt from shifting when the nut was fitted. Other similar bolts with cup heads 23 x 1.5 cm were used for general construction. Dumps 10 x 1 cm and 14 x 1.5 cm were used to secure decking and other planking: Note in artefacts (A, and B Fig. 9)  the square section on the upper head of the bolt shafts that bit into the timber allowing the nut to be tightened. Also note the file marks along the shafts where flashing has been removed with a file. Moulds not completely secured during the casting stages, caused flashing that required filing off and hand finishing to remove excess material.

These fastenings are of the type used in the construction of the SS Douglas Mawson and were supplied by Alf Settree. They, along with other hand tools and paint, belonged to his father and were marked 'Douglas Mawson'. Such evidence would be invaluable in identifying the SS Douglas Mawson if she could be located in the Gulf of Carpentaria. It has been included in this study to act as a guide for further research on the site as there is evidence of metal buried in the shipyard area. The excavation of the site would be required to further research the ship building methods. Muntz metal, an alloy consisting of 60% copper and 39.25% zinc, was also used in sheet form for the sheathing of wooden hulls. With the addition of 0.75% tin the alloy formed is naval brass or tobin bronze (60%, Cu 39.25% Zn, 0.75% Sn). The alloy formed has increased resistance to salt water corrosion and was used for condenser heads, valve stems and piston rods, propeller shafts, condenser tubes in boilers and welding rods (Avner, 1984, Bailey, 1964:351-353). The melding of such alloys is a relatively simple process, however, the casting of items requires the investiture to be in excess of 815.55C (1500°F). The nodules of cast metal located on the site of the blacksmith's shop, and the remains of a third firepit, support that casting may have been carried out.

At Bawley Point there is insufficient depth of water for vessels to come alongside. The depth of water near the sawmill and slipway is only 1.36 fathom [2.5 m] therefore, timber had to be manoeuvred across the stretch of water from the shore to the ship. The depth of water offshore at Bawley Point is 10 to 17 fathoms[18.3 m to 31 m], while at O'Hara Head, another small sawmill near Kioloa south of Bawley Point, hydrographic charts record the depth as 9 to 20 fathoms [16.5 m to 36.6 m], adequate for the vessels to moor (Hydrographic Survey, RAN. 3, Jan. 1992).

The location of the slipway and depth of water influenced Settree to employ an unusual broadside method of launching the SS Douglas Mawson into the sea (Moruya Examiner 1914). This method of launching is supported by the archaeological evidence remaining for the standing ways. This irregular method held the inherent danger of the ship overturning on entry into the water, prompting the comment 'a launching and a shipwreck' by the builder (Settree, 1994: pers. comm; Hamon, 1994:71). 

The slipway
The slipway was constructed north-east of the sawmill approximately 180 m from the boiler room. 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 northeast. 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. Embedded into the rock, just below or on the mean low tide mark, are three 3.8 cm [11/2 in] diameter steel pins (A), (B) and (C) also associated with the slipway. Tidal surge and slippery conditions made it precarious to accurately record the position of the pins. However, pins A and B are approximately 40 m apart. Other pins may be in the area, however, tidal conditions make them difficult to locate.

Fig. 10. The location of the shipyard and its  association to the sawmill at Bawley Point  including the detail of the 'broadside' launching process.

Two historical photographs show the vessel under construction and immediately after launching on 11 April 1914. Using these photographs it is possible to identify various rock features on the foreshore to establish a position approximately half way between pins (A and B Fig 9). This supports the evidence that the pins were used during the launching procedure and held the standing way for the slipway in position. The slipway was composed of four major components: the standing way, the sliding way, two chocks and the trigger. The standing way was bolted to the rock with 46 x 3.8 cm (18 in x 1 1/2 in) bolts embedded into holes drilled into the bedrock. There appears to be no lead sheathing in these holes and this may indicate a different technology to that applied in the mill area, the sawmill being built in 1892 and the shipyard in 1912. Pins in the bedrock for the construction of the sawmill had lead sheathing lining the holes and would suggest a longer-term use for the construction than the shipway.


Fig. 11. The SS Douglas Mawson nearing completion on the slipway to the east of the sawmill. 

Fig. 12. Immediately after launching (photographs courtesy A. Settree).

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 (Settree, 1994: pers. comm.). 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 (Settree, 1994: pers. comm.). 

Fig. 13.  Details of the sliding way and steel pins embedded into bedrock.

Along the edge of the vegetation near the ridgeline, many metallic objects in a heavily corroded state were evidenced in the meagre ground cover. Identification and recording of these artefacts would have required excavation. The condition of some of the exposed remains prohibits ready visual identification because of corrosion. However, one hand-made steel nail, 76 x 4.5 mm [3 x 3/16 ] having a square head and shank, was located on the surface in short grass. Rusted remains of what appear to be steel washers, a short length of steel cable and a thimble strop were also recorded. On the surface in the vicinity of the shipwright's shed, two lengths of sawn timber 14 cm and 12 cm [5 1/2 in and 4 3/4 in] and 20 x 10 cm [8 in x 4 in] remain. These may have been part of the shed construction or sections of the vessel. Settree (1994: pers. comm.) stated his father returned to the site in 1936 and discarded crooks from building the ship were still evident on the ground. 

Fig. 14. Thimble strop and eyelet from  shipyard site. Measurement of eyelet  (A) width 7.62 cm (3 in)  length 7.62 cm (3 in)  thickness 3.75 cm (1 3/4 in), thickness of steel cable (B, C) 2.54 cm (1 in).

A thimble strop and section of rusted cable was lying in the grass near the shipyard workshop. Thimble strop was used to form an eyelet to secure steel cable. This equipment was used in the loading process or in launching the SS Douglas Mawson

Small quantities of pitch are present on the rock in this area. The glue-like composition of the pitch has provided a strong bond with the rock 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 (Kerr, 1985: 64). 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 (Settree, 1994: pers. comm., Kerr, 1985: 65).

The shipyard area would be worthy of further archaeological investigation and excavation to add to the understanding of shipbuilding methods during a period of design change from timber to plate steel hulls in the history of shipbuilding. Field investigations at sites at Batemans Bay, Moruya, Narooma and Tathra, where shipbuilding activities occurred during the same period, have been destroyed by housing development, quarrying, foreshore reclamation and road construction. Over 250 wooden ships were built in these areas and Bawley Point is possibly the only site where evidence of this type of shipbuilding remains. Such information is important to the understanding of the spread of settlement, as the Colony was heavily dependent upon marine transportation. The declining condition of the artefacts on the site, exposure to the elements and the continued public use of this area for car parking would necessitate urgency for such an archaeological investigation.

Only one ship was constructed during the operation of the Bawley Point Mill. Its construction has left its mark on the archaeological record in the forest and at the construction site. Small ships played a vital role in the spread of settlement in Australia and detailed archaeological data about the construction methods of these vessels is limited. Several unique features have been demonstrated regarding the sawmill site. The slipway site offers a further unique combination of evidence. Only one vessel was built at the site so that evidence provides detailed data of the construction method for that one particular style or type of vessel. Most other sites along the coast where construction of similar vessels occurred during this period, have been destroyed by continued development. Certain ancillary services may have been provided on site by other trades. If casting did take place its further investigation would play a significant role in the understanding of such an industry during early settlement. The Blacksmith's Shop site and the Slipway site are worthy of further investigation for the greater understanding of early industrial techniques in Australia. 


The author wishes to express his appreciation to Mr Alf Settree, shipbuilder, for his advice, photographs and builder's model. I also express my thanks to diving instructor and geographer Steve Harding, Jennifer Lambert Tracey, archaeologist, Simon Wilkinson, marine biologist, Wifred Shawcross, archaeologist, for his encouragement and Kate Tracey, for their assistance in the field.

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Above: Bawley Point headland 2004
Below: Author recording archaeological remains off the headland

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Saturday, 09 May 2015