Loch Ard Gorge is a must-stop point along the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, Australia. It’s found in Port Campbell National Park, just three minutes away from the world-famous Twelve Apostles.
Flanked by two cliff faces and tufts of vibrant greenery, this scenic gorge is home to a secluded, turquoise-coloured bay with rolling waves caressing a narrow, sandy beach. However, Loch Ard Gorge isn’t just another natural Aussie attraction. It has a history of tragedy, irony and heroism that started from a voyage 130 years ago.
In 1878, the Loch Ard, a magnificent three-masted square-rigged iron clipper ship set sail from Gravesend (I’m serious!) in Kent, UK. Measuring 263 feet long with a beam of 38 feet, it carried onboard 17 passengers and 37 crew for a 3-month voyage to Melbourne. For the past 90 days at sea, it had been smooth-sailing and everyone was in good spirits, looking forward to their arrival in Melbourne the next day. On the night of 31 May 1878, a party was organised to celebrate the end of a long voyage.
Many days of fog and poor weather had made it difficult for the newly married, 29-year-old Captain Gibb to calculate his exact position for the critical passage into the western entrance of Bass Strait. By the time the mist lifted around 4:00am, the Loch Ard was greeted by powerful breakers and treacherous cliffs of the Victorian coast just two miles away. The Captain and his crew tried desperately to drop their anchors in an effort to steady the ship and turn her about, but it was too late. There was not enough space to manoeuvre such a large vessel, particularly with the wind and current against her. The Loch Ard struck Mutton Bird Island, crashing against the reef, dislodging rocks from the limestone cliffs onto the ship’s decks.
Pandemonium broke out as the crew struggled to launch the lifeboats, while passengers screamed in terror as the ship started to disintegrate. Many of the crew and passengers were washed overboard, and others trapped as the sea began to invade the ship. The Loch Ard sank within 15 minutes of the crash, with passengers having little chance of survival in the icy and treacherous waters.
Fifty-two people went down with the ship on that day. Only 4 bodies were eventually recovered and later buried in the clifftop cemetery – in coffins made from piano crates!
Only two people survived the Loch Ard Shipwreck – Tom Pearce, an apprentice seaman aged 18 years, and Eva Carmichael, also 18, a passenger emigrating with her family to start a new life in Australia. When the Loch Ard was going down, Eva had raced onto the deck to find out what was happening, only to be confronted by towering cliffs looming above the stricken ship, before being swept off by a huge wave. She could not swim and clung fiercely to a chicken coop for 5 hours. As the angry waves carried her nearer towards the entrance of a long, narrow gorge, she saw a lone figure on the distant beach and screamed for help.
Tom Pearce, a member of the crew, was swept into the sea while helping to launch a lifeboat. He managed to hold on underneath the upturned boat and was swept into the same deep gorge that now bears the name Loch Ard Gorge. He managed to swim to shore and was recuperating in a sea cave when he heard Eva’s cries for help. Although himself exhausted, he bravely dashed back out into the raging sea to rescue Eva. It took him an hour to swim out to Eva and pull her ashore. He brought Eva to a nearby cave in the gorge where she collapsed from her ordeal. After a few hours of resting, Tom climbed up the surrounding cliff and walked over three miles to seek help.
He managed to raise the alarm from the nearby Glenample Homestead and both survivors spent the rest of their time recovering at the farmhouse.
Tom and Eva became the subject of intense media attention and romantic speculation. On the one hand, there was the romantic expectation for them to marry. On the other, Victorian attitudes suggested that she was compromised by sleeping in a cave with a young sailor, and he should do the right thing by offering to marry her. Disappointingly for the romantics amongst us, Tom and Eva went their separate ways. They never saw each other again. Eva returned to Ireland where she later got married. Tom went back to sea and his heroism earned him a medal from the Humane Society.
Visitors to the area today can see the Gorge where the disaster took place, the rock stack of Mutton Bird Island that brought down the Loch Ard, the beach where Tom and Eva struggled ashore, and the cave where she lay exhausted while Tom went for help.
The other survivor of the shipwreck is a life-sized, brilliantly-coloured 1.5-metre-tall Minton porcelain peacock, perched on a rock. It was on its way from England to be displayed at Melbourne’s Great International Exhibition of 1880. Apart from a small chip on its beak, it was undamaged and is Australia’s most valuable shipwreck relic on display at Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum with an estimated worth of $4m.
Life After the Shipwreck
What became of Tom and Eva after they went their separate ways?
After recuperating for 6 weeks at Glenample Homestead, Eva boarded a steamship and went back to Ireland! Brave young woman to dare board a ship after all that had happened just a few weeks ago!
Eva married a Captain Townshend who had the same first name as her rescuer – Thomas (Tom for short). Okay. Perhaps I’m nitpicking here. ‘Thomas’ may have been a very common name for boys at that time!
Could Tom Pearce have been jinxed – or as we Asians call it – suay! Before the Loch Ard, Tom Pearce had previously survived another shipwreck 3 years earlier in 1875 when the Eliza Ramsden went down near the entrance to Port Phillip Bay. After the Loch Ard tragedy in 1878, Tom returned to sea in 1879. The ship Loch Sunart he was in hit a rock off Ballywalter in what is Northern Ireland today. The story goes that Tom was washed ashore and carried unconscious to the nearest house. Guess whose house it was? Eva Townshend’s! Coincidence? Fate?
If you are thinking of going on a cruise, be sure to find out the names of the ship’s crew. If you see the name ‘Tom Pearce’, don’t board the ship!
Tom eventually married a woman who happened to be the relative of another ship apprentice that went down with the Loch Ard. He retired in 1908 and died in his Southhampton home at the age of 49. It’s a bit of an irony that Tom managed to survive 3 shipwrecks but didn’t get to reach his 50th birthday! Perhaps he had cheated Death one too many times and his time was finally up!
Tom Pearce was born Thomas Richard Millett. When his civil engineer father died in 1874, Tom’s widowed mother married Captain James Pearce and Tom took on the surname ‘Pearce’ from then on. Tom’s stepfather, James Pearce, happened to be the captain of the ill-fated SS Gothenburg that wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef in February 1875!
Tom’s family history is littered with tragedy. Both his sons followed in their father’s footsteps and became sailors. However while Tom managed to survive three shipwrecks, his sons were not so lucky and both boys died at sea. Tom’s daughter was killed in a road crash and a granddaughter committed suicide.
Back to present-day Loch Ard Gorge where yesterday’s tragedy has become today’s tourist attraction. I felt very small standing on this narrow stretch of sand, sandwiched between towering cliffs on both sides. While some of the fascination has rubbed off, the coast has not been tamed. It’s really not difficult to imagine the chaos, destruction and danger that sweeps across this part of the Great Ocean Road during a thunderstorm.