Although the ship Netherby was carrying a crew of fifty and 452 passengers when she hit without warning on King Island, Bass Strait, on 14 July 1866, not one life was lost. She was bound from London to Brisbane and was 120 days out when disaster struck.
For several days prior to her arrival at the western entrance to Bass Strait the weather had been so thick no accurate observations could be made. At about 7.30pm land was seen, but it was so close that in less than three minutes she was on the rocks about thirty five miles south of Cape Wickham.
Everyone reached the shore using a boat hauled back and forth along a rope, fastened from the ship to a rock on the beach. A camp was then set up with tents made from the ship's sails, and rough shelters were built from boughs of trees. On the second day after the wreck a child was born. The survivors were allowed one pannikin of flour and one packet of cocoa each day; this had been salvaged from the cargo.
Mr Parry, the second officer, then led a small party to search the island for any signs of habitation. On the morning of the fifth day after the wreck Mr W Hickmott, who was on duty at the Cape Wickham lighthouse, saw nine men approaching. The leader carried a note which read: "Send help and succour to 500 shipwrecked people from the ship Netherby. Owen Owens, Master."
The party arrived at the lighthouse weak, hungry and footsore after their five day journey. Following a brief rest preparations were made to equip the lighthouse whale boat with provisions, water, compass and other essential equipment, and it set off for melbourne with Mr Parry and the four strongest as crew. By sundown they were twenty miles on their voyage.
The same evening, Captain Owens arrived at the lighthouse in another boat. As the party had been gone five days he had set out in search of them, fearing they may have been attacked by hostile Aboriginals. While the Captain and members of the crew remained at the lighthouse Mr Hickmott went to the wreck with orders from Owens instructing the doctor left in charge to increase rations for all. He then set off on the return journey with 117 single men from the ship, each man carrying two pannikins of flour, and two packets of cocoa, a two day ration.
On the second afternoon the first men arrived within sight of the lighthouse where the superintendent of the light met them with a sack of biscuits. Through his telescope he had seen them approaching. Small groups continued to arrive throughout the night and reached the lighthouse on the evening of the second day. They were comfortably housed and fed by the light-keepers' wives.
When Parry and his crew had left Cape Wickham they intended to steer a north easterly course to pick up the pilot schooner at Port Phillips Heads, or a fishing boat, but the current carried their boat to the west, and they landed on the coast near Anglesea on the afternoon of 21 July.
They saw an old man minding sheep but he apparently thought they were bushrangers and took to his heels. Finally, they overtook him, told their story and were guided to Roadnight's Station. Mr Parry was provided with a horse and rode thirty miles into Geelong where he telegraphed news of the wreck to Melbourne.
The Government steamers Victoria and Pharos were sent to pick up the survivors, who were housed at the Exhibition Building, Melbourne while an appeal was opened to assist them reach their destinations. Most of them had been brought out under the Queensland Government's system of assisted emigration but many elected to remain in Victoria.
The wreck was purchased by Messrs Boyd & Currie, and Messrs J Donaldson & Company, who sent the Lady Don to collect the cargo. However, the pilot schooner ran into her outside Port Phillip Heads and she was forced to return to Melbourne. The cutter Ben Bolt was then used and Captains Leggett and Currie salvaged the cargo.
During the salvage operations a heavy iron bar slipped from the slings and passed through a boat containing six men, pinning it to the submerged deck of the Netherby. Three of the men struggled ashore but the others were not seen again. The water was tinged with blood and it was thought they had been torn to pieces by sharks.
The Netherby was a vessel of 944 tons gross, 1800 tons burthen, built at Sunderland in 1858 on dimemsions of 176x33x22, and owned by T M Mackay & Company. She was the seventy seventh vessel to sail on the land order system for the Queensland Government.
Sources: LR1866; MA 23 July 1866; KIR 28 Jun 1911; Loney, Vic Shipwrecks 63.