It is difficult for us to imagine that until well into the 20th Century Newcastle was considered to be one of the most dangerous ports of the East Coast of Australia. This unwelcome but well-deserved reputation was due to the often dangerous currents, exposure to storms and reefs arranged like teeth at the entrance of the harbour’s mouth.

The most feared reef was The Oyster Bank - an innocuous name for a shallow rocky shelf situated at the Northern side of the port’s entrance. In good weather the Oyster Bank was no more than a mark on nautical charts that slipped rapidly past as a ship entering the safety of the harbour. In bad weather ships were frequently driven onto the Oyster Bank and, along with cargo, crew and passengers rapidly battered to pieces between the waves and the reef.

Rescue attempts would be attempted in small boats, but were frequently beaten back or sunk by the storm. The loss of life - that of the crews and often their would-be rescuers, culminated in the commissioning of a purpose-built lifeboat, the “Victoria”.

Commission

Victoria was commissioned at Newcastle on Thursday 27th May, 1897. However significant the date is for the city of Newcastle, it represents the culmination of a century of research, experimentation, failures and successes in which lifeboat design and technology was developed by concerned individuals and volunteer groups, often without recognition or reward from the British and Colonial governments. Their important story which led to the Victoria, is told elsewhere.

Construction

Victoria was designed to meet the standards of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. She was self-righting and constructed of mahogony - double skin of diagonal planking with canvas between skins. The diagonal planking provided strength to against warping by strong waves. A crew of 13 propelled the boat, and each was paid one pound per month and for each call-out a further 25 shillings (roughly $57 in today’s dollars) in ordinary weather or 50 shillings ($114) in bad weather. The Coxwain was paid 4 pounds ($2100) and Second Coxwain 2 pounds ($1050) They were each given a Life Insurance policy to the then princely sum of 200 pounds ($100,000).

A self righting boat is, in theory, incapable of capsizing due to features such as a heavy keel (Victoria’s consisted of 2 tonnes of cast iron), deck drains and a series of water-tight compartments. If capsized, then Victoria could right herself in eleven seconds and completely drain of water after a further seventeen seconds.

Victoria provided a valuable service to the port for decades, and was involved in major rescues, often of ships that foundered on the treacherous Oyster bank, that saved dozens of lives until her retirement. The restored lifeboat now resides in the Maritime Centre as one of its major exhibits.

Links

Equipment Manifiest

Ships Attended to by Victoria

Original Rules From The Lifeboat Comittee