Project Canterbury

Albert Maclaren
Pioneer Missionary in New Guinea

By Frances M. Synge

London: Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, 1908

Chapter VII. The Wreck of the S.S. Quetta

WHILE Maclaren was waiting to get away from Thursday Island, news arrived which was to strike consternation and sorrow into every heart in Australia.

The British India royal mail steamer Quetta, bound from Brisbane to England with 291 souls on board, struck on an uncharted rock near Adolphus Island (Albany Pass) on the night of 28th February, 1890, and sank in less than three minutes. It was a beautiful and calm night, and many of the ladies were singing in the music saloon, practising for a concert, others were writing letters in the saloon. Some of the survivors said that the noise caused by the vessel in striking sounded like a tank going overboard, then there was a grating sound, and then a swell of water from the engine-room. The ship did not seem to sink, the water merely seemed to rise round her. Then the stern rose high out of the water, and the propeller and a large part of the keel became visible. She hung in that position for about half a minute, then listed to port and suddenly disappeared. The captain had ordered the boats to be lowered directly she struck, and called out, "All who want to be saved, come aft". Some of the ship wrecked passengers and crew reached Mount Adolphus Island clinging to the boats, and next morning one of the boats went to Somerset to wire to Thursday Island for assistance. Orders were given by the Government Resident, the Hon. John Douglas, to Captain Reid of the little steamer Albatross, to proceed immediately to the scene of the wreck, and Captain Hennessey of the Merrie England offered to go as well in the New Guinea Government yacht, so in less than an hour she weighed anchor and was on her way. On board the Albatross were Dr. Salter of Thursday Island, Captain Wilkie and Maclaren. It was Maclaren who supplied to the Queensland press all details concerning the search for the survivors. The following account is in his own words:--"About three hours after leaving Thursday Island the Albatross came alongside the SS. Victoria and took on board Captain Sanders (R.M.S. Quetta), the pilot (Captain Keating) and some lascars, and at once proceeded on her way to Mount Adolphus Island, where nearly a hundred shipwrecked people anxiously awaited her arrival, among them being the second and fourth officers and the quartermaster of the Quetta. Many of us were touched when we saw the attachment of a Javanese to a little white child about three years of age. He had rescued her from the deep and had tended her with the greatest care. The poor little child was calling for 'mamma,' and he told us she had been crying out all day for her. We gave her milk and wrapped her in some pyjamas till other clothing arrived by the steamer Merrie England. Shortly after we had at tended to the wants of the shipwrecked people the Merrie England arrived, commanded by Captain Hennessey, bringing with her articles of wearing apparel which the kind-hearted people of Thursday Island had collected and sent on board. They had accepted the services of Miss Brown, who volunteered to act as stewardess in case there might be some ladies rescued from the wreck. . . . Soon after the arrival of the Merrie England the shipwrecked people were transhipped to her, and both ships anchored till the dawn of day, when, having prearranged different routes in which to search for other survivors who might be cast adrift, they set off on their work. As I was on board the SS. Albatross, I can only give a detailed account of our own movements. Captain Reid steamed at once for Mount Adolphus Island, where four men were seen on the rock waving something white, and walking up and down. A boat was sent off, and they were brought on board and taken care of. Then we steamed along the island and sent a boat off at the other end to search for men, which the Albatross called for later on in the day, and took on board one man whom those in the boat had found. Then we steamed towards the Three Brothers Island, when Captain Reid, who never left the bridge for an instant, but with glass in hand scanned the sea in every direction, suddenly saw some thing not much larger than a coco-nut floating out to sea. He steamed towards it, and as we drew nearer saw that it was a person swimming. A boat was sent out and a young lady was lifted in. One of the sailors took off his flannel shirt and wrapped her in it, but she had in the meantime fainted. I recognised her as Miss May Lacy, of S. Helen's Station, Mackay. She was much exhausted, but thanks to the care of Dr. Salter is fast recovering, though she is very weak and burnt by exposure to the sun. Her story is that she was writing a letter to her mother when the sad event happened and she rushed to get her younger sister, who had gone to bed, and brought her on deck. Both went over together and she was afterwards dragged into a boat or raft, where she was kindly treated by the purser. She remained on the raft till the afternoon of Saturday, when, the purser tells me, she determined to swim to the shore, so that she must have been swimming about till she was seen by Captain Reid at 8.10 this morning. Her rescue is almost miraculous, as she was drifting out to sea away from Mount Adolphus Island, and could not have held out much longer.

"We passed over the scene of the terrible wreck, and, at the request of Captain Reid, I read the service of the Church of England, in the presence of the captain, Mr. Corser, Pilot Keating, Dr. Salter and the crew."

It was Tuesday night, 4 March, when the Albatross returned to Thursday Island, having been out on her work of rescue since Saturday afternoon. The kindness and self-sacrifice so generally shown were the one bright spot on a very dark picture of suffering and death. Maclaren earned public thanks for what he had done, and his memory will long be gratefully enshrined in sorrowing hearts for his love and care for their dear ones in those terrible days, It was at Maclaren's suggestion that what is now known as the "Quetta Memorial Church" was erected in 1890 on Thursday Island, as a thank-offering on behalf of those who had been saved, as well as a memorial to those whose lives had been lost.

He wrote to the Queensland press on 26th April, 1890:--

"Will you permit me, through the columns of your paper, to solicit the interest of my fellow-churchmen in Queensland in a matter which has suggested itself to me during the last few days--the erection of a small church on Thursday Island as a memorial to those who lost their lives in the sad Quetta disaster? We all know that among those who are sleeping peacefully beneath the placid waters of Torres Straits are some who took a very earnest interest in all that concerns the welfare of the Anglican Church in this vast colony, and I know of no more suitable way of recognising their services and perpetuating their memory than by the erection of a mall church on Thursday Island. For it is the nearest spot to the sad scene of the Quetta wreck, and a church there is much needed; and in the second place (though the Thursday Island residents would be the last to wish their generous unselfishness to be noticed), all classes and creeds were assiduous in their anxiety to do what they could to aid the needy and the sufferers. I therefore venture to make the suggestion and trust to the liberality of English churchmen throughout the colony to make a united effort to carry it through.

"The time has come when there should be an Anglican church erected on the island, and a resident clergyman appointed to minister to the Europeans who are not members of the Roman obedience, and also to take some interest in the aboriginals and other coloured nationalities on it and the islands adjacent."

On 25th July, 1890, Maclaren's suggestion took practical shape in a meeting held at the Court House, Thursday Island, and presided over by the Bishop of North Queensland--Dr. Stanton. At the meeting the following resolution was adopted: "That in the opinion of this meeting it is desirable that a church and parson age be erected on Thursday Island; the church to be a memorial of those who were lost in the wreck of the Quetta on the night of 28th February last and that the present Church committee take the necessary steps for carrying this into effect".

Prior to this date the Anglican Church in Thursday Island had no resident clergyman and no church building. The first requirements were to provide for a resident clergyman, and to provide a suitable house for him. During 1890-91 a parsonage was built and the Rev. W. Maitland Woods, M.A., was duly installed as the first rector by the bishop of the diocese.

We can imagine what satisfaction this appointment gave to Maclaren, whose keen interest in the cosmopolitan little island and earnest desire that something should be done for the spiritual welfare of the shifting, seafaring population we have already seen.

The appeal for funds to build a church resulted in the sum of £2,000 being raised, and the chancel and four bays were built in concrete, the aisles being added later with temporary walls of wood. The chancel was consecrated by Bishop Barlow on 12th November, 1893. The memorial church, though not even yet completed, has become the home of some who have no home with out it, and is the centre of a widespread missionary influence. During 1907 thirty Javanese have been baptised and received into communion with the Church. The services held in the church are attended by numbers of South-Sea Islanders, many of whom are communicants.

In 1900 the Quetta Memorial Church became the cathedral church of the new See of Carpentaria.

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