November 30, 2021

The Sinking of the SS Casino

For 50 years, the SS Casino hauled cargo and customers along Victoria’s south coast. In 1932, it foundered in Apollo Bay.

Port Fairy
Picturesque: Port Fairy

290km west of Melbourne, Port Fairy is a picturesque country town, situated between a rugged but beautiful coast, and a lush interior. The town is small but prosperous; the main industries are fishing and agriculture, and a fair number of the residents are retired.

In  March of each year there is a popular Folk Festival.

Like many towns along Victoria’s south coast, Port Fairy had originally been a whaling and sealing station. The first Europeans arrived in 1835; a sealing ship, ‘The Fairy’, provided the name.

In 1843 a Sydney solicitor, James Atkinson, invested heavily in the area, buying large tracks of land which he sold them via subdivision to farmers and settlers.

Originally from Ireland, Atkinson’s influence was such that he was able to rename the town after his home. For thirty years it was known as ‘Belfast’. Anti-Irish sentiment caused the name to be changed back to Port Fairy in 1887.

Flag of the BKSC
Flag of the Belfast & Koroit Steamship Company

Other towns along Victoria’s south coast have a similar history; starting as whaling stations, gradually developing into small towns and agricultural centres.

Another thing they had in common was difficulty of access.

The Great Ocean Road now links the region to Melbourne, but building did not commence until 1919, and took 13 years to complete. Prior to this, shipping was the main transport option available.

Passenger and cargo ships would stop at the major towns along the coast, delivering people and supplies, and collecting produce to be sold in Melbourne and Sydney.

In 1882, the ‘Belfast & Koroit Steamship Company‘ (BKSC) was founded in Port Fairy. With offices on the Moyne River, that ran through town, the BKSC was established to join the growing local shipping industry.

The 'SS Casino'
The ‘SS Casino’

The same month the company was founded, the SS Casino set out on its maiden voyage.

The Casino was an iron steamship, augmented with sails, designed to carry both cargo and passengers. It was built in Dundee, Scotland, measured 160 feet by 24, with thrust provided by two 65 horsepower engines. The displacement was 425 tonnes.

It was a plain ship, designed to be a workhorse, sturdy and robust.

In March 1882, the SS Casino set sail from Dundee with a shipment of coal, destined for Sydney. Sailing via the Cape of Good Hope, it completed its journey along Australia’s southern coast, making several stops along the way.

In October it docked in Warrnambool, the largest regional town on Victoria’s coast, where it was inspected by agents from the BKSC. They decided to purchase the vessel, and agreed to terms with the Casino’s owner.

It was the first of three ships the company would buy in the next 3 years, followed by ‘The Bellinger’ (1884) and ‘The Dawn’ (1885).

Dining room on the SS Casino
Dining room on the SS Casino

With a small fleet secured, the BKSC began to operate a regular service along the south coast. The route took them between Melbourne and Portland, near the South Australian border, with stops at Apollo Bay, Warrnambool and Port Fairy.

Passengers travelled in moderate comfort. There were private cabins and a reasonably well-appointed saloon and dining room.

Although travel on these services could be taxing. The Bass Strait is a notoriously rough stretch of ocean, high seas and bad weather are common.

The many ships that have sunk off this part of Victoria have caused the area to be dubbed ‘The Shipwreck Coast’.

SS Casino sailing up the Moyne River
SS Casino sailing up the Moyne River

Along their route, the ships picked up and dropped off cargo, including; livestock, farm produce, vegetables, books, and even pianos. They also brought news and mail.

In such an isolated region, the arrival of cargo ships was greeted enthusiastically by the local residents. Large numbers often turned out on the docks, or along the town pier, to watch them arrive and see what they had brought.

The SS Casino was one thread of local life, a familiar site along the coast. It was commemorated in artworks, postcards and souvenirs, and was often referred to as ‘Old Cas’ or ‘Cassie’.

Tapestry featuring the SS Casino
Tapestry featuring the SS Casino

On July 10, 1932, the SS Casino was approaching Apollo Bay in bad weather.

It was about 7 30 in the morning, and the ship had sailed through a storm overnight, since leaving Melbourne the day before. On board were 2 passengers, 17 crew, and a load of cargo.

At the helm was Captain John Middleton, an experienced seaman who had been in charge of the Casino for 8 years.

The ship entered the normally sheltered harbour, and approached the pier. The waves and swell made manoeuvring difficult.

Despite the bad weather, a crowd of people had gathered on the jetty, to watch the Casino come in.

The harbour at Apollo Bay
The harbour at Apollo Bay

As the ship struggled to pull alongside the pier, a particularly large set of waves swept into the bay. The vessel was lifted, and dropped sharply, several times in quick succession.

‘She bumped two or three times on the bottom.

 

It seemed to me that she struck a solid bottom, although I suppose it was sand. That thump was hard, I can tell you.

 

There was a big hole knocked in her, I felt sure of that. I heard the water coming in.’

 

– Edward MacDermid, SS Casino’s second mate

Captain Middleton then made a fatal miscalculation.

After the impact, he retreated further out into the bay. Unaware, initially, that the hull had been breached, he intended to anchor, and wait for the sea to ease.

But it was quickly clear that the Casino was in trouble.

Life belt from the SS Casino
Life belt from the SS Casino

As the hold filled with water, the ship began to list heavily. Captain Middleton now realised what had happened, and turned back towards the beach.

As docking at the pier had proved too difficult, he now intended to simply run the ship aground.

The crew scrambled for the life boats. Its two passengers, Joan Greer, 12, and her guardian Norah Convery, were helped into their life belts by the stewardess, Helena Gill, calm in this moment of panic.

Greer and Convery were placed into the first life boat, which immediately capsized.

The Casino then tipped right over on its side, and most of the crew abandoned ship, jumping for their lives into the ocean.

Despite the chaos, the second life boat launched safely, and now set about retrieving people from the water.

The Casino loomed overhead; MacDermid said he thought the ship’s funnel was going to crash on top of him. It narrowly missed the lifeboat, but when it hit the ocean, there was a terrible roar and outpouring of steam from the engine room.

Pulling people out of the heavy sea was difficult. As one crew member scrambled awkwardly into the life boat, it unbalanced, and then capsized as well.

Everyone went back into the ocean. There was no sign of Helena Gill.

Local press reports the sinking: Captain Middleton and Helena Gill pictured
Local press reports the sinking: Captain Middleton and Helena Gill pictured

As the Casino foundered in front of the horrified onlookers on the pier, rescue was attempted from shore.
Small boats put out, and began to retrieve a few survivors; Greer, Convery and MacDermid among them.

Captain Middleton had remained on the Casino, and was joined by several crew members, who swam back to the ship to get out of the heaving ocean. Over the next two hours, the rescuers tried repeatedly to get a line to the stricken vessel, as it slowly sank.

Middleton was finally plucked from the ocean, but then suffered a heart attack; he died as he was being carried out of the surf. Nine other crew members were also drowned, including Helena Gill.

Location of SS Casino shipwreck
Location of SS Casino shipwreck

A subsequent inquest confirmed what MacDermid had speculated; the Casino had hit the bottom of the bay while attempting to dock, and its hull had ruptured. No fault with the captain or crew was found, it was simply a tragic accident.

When it sunk, the SS Casino was only a few months shy of its 50th anniversary; a celebration had been planned for later in the year.

In the aftermath of the disaster, the BKSC decided to end their operations along the south coast. Replacing the Casino would be expensive, it was the last ship they had still running the route, and it was thought the public would be wary of using the service again.

The Great Ocean Road sign

In November 1932, 4 months after the sinking, the Great Ocean Road was officially opened at a ceremony in Lorne. It would now only be a drive of a few hours, from Melbourne to Apollo Bay.

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