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White Star Line’s Pericles Lost Off Australian Coast

By James Donahue

Some believe the White Star liner Pericles was among the most opulent passenger carriers servicing the Australian ports at the time it struck an uncharted rock and sank off Cape Leeuwin in 1910.

At 498-feet in length, the four-mast steamship, powered by twin screws, had rooms for 100 first class passengers, 400 third class passengers, and the 150 crew members serving it. Like the other steamships of that era, the Pericles also carried cargo on those long trips from London to Sydney and back.

Pericles was launched at Belfast, Ireland, in December 1907, and went into service for George Thompson and Co. Ltd of the Aberdeen Line, a division of the White Star Line, in 2008. Thus she was a new vessel on the final leg of its fourth trip to Sydney and back when disaster struck so unexpectedly.

The best account we found of the wreck was from a New York Times story that quoted Philadelphia resident Dr. F. G. Hawksworth, one of the 463 passengers and crew members who safely escaped the ship before it foundered in about three meters of water about nine miles off the coast.

From all reports the liner was steaming north in fair seas at the time it struck the rock. The collision tore a gash in the hull that overwhelmed the ship’s pumps. The vessel sank bow first during the next two and one-half hours, giving everyone on the vessel enough time to launch lifeboats and row safely to shore.

“I was shaving at the time,” Hawksworth said. “There was no great shock. I went on deck at once. There was much excitement and I found the passengers gathering on the deck. The vessel was bound from Sydney to Cape Town and was two weeks from Sydney when she struck. We ran through a heavy fog for two days. When the fog lifted we noticed that we were steaming close inshore. The captain believed the channel was a clear one and the rock we struck was uncharted.”

The doctor said there was not enough time for anyone to save personal belongings. Everyone got in the ship’s 14 lifeboats, all of them were successfully lowered, and the survivors rowed for nine miles, guided by a signal fire lit by the keeper at the Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse.

A bit of a mystery occurred after the search began for the wreck. At first there was no trace to be found of the steamer, yet a few days later the masts were clearly visible below the surface. It was speculated that the Pericles rolled on its side and then righted itself underwater.

The wreck was partly salvaged in the 1950s. Just after the sinking, however, it was said tons of cargo washed up along the coast and was snapped up by people living along the coast. They said families traveled by horse-drawn carts up and down the coast searching for the unexpected bounty.