The deadly shipwreck that preceded Harold Holt’s drowning death
The deadly shipwreck that preceded Harold Holt’s drowning death

Harold Holt’s macabre link to deadly shipwreck

Even today, the treacherous beaches and rocky coastline of Point Nepean are closed to the public, and with good reason.

Rough seas and dangerous currents swirl around Point Nepean and The Rip, the narrow entrance to Port Phillip between Point Nepean and Point Lonsdale that is bedevilled by huge tidal surges and submerged rocks and reefs.

The most famous event in Point Nepean's history happened on December 17, 1967, when then-Prime Minister Harold Holt took a pre-lunch swim with friends at Cheviot Beach, one of his favourite swimming and snorkelling locations, and disappeared into the boiling surf.

Despite one of the largest air and sea searches ever mounted in Australia, no trace of Holt was ever found.

But his death was not the first in the waters off that wild, lonely beach.

A lithograph of the wreck of the SS Cheviot by Alfred Martin Ebsworth. Picture: State Library of Victoria
A lithograph of the wreck of the SS Cheviot by Alfred Martin Ebsworth. Picture: State Library of Victoria

 

THE END OF THE SS CHEVIOT

The wreck of the SS Cheviot, the tragedy that gave Cheviot Beach its name, claimed at least 35 lives.

The Cheviot was owned by Melbourne shipping firm William Howard Smith and Sons and was used to transport passengers and coal between Australia's colonies.

On the evening of October 19, 1887, the Cheviot was steaming from Melbourne to Sydney in rough weather with a south-westerly gale blowing when it reached The Rip.

It's believed 59 passengers and crew were aboard the Cheviot along with a cargo of wine, metals, food and other items valued at £8000 (more than $1 million today).

The big English-made iron screw steamer was just entering the open ocean on the outgoing tide about 8pm when the propeller was disabled.

It's not clear why the propeller failed.

Was it rendered inoperable by the churning sea?

An 1887 chart by Alfred Martin Ebsworth shows where the SS Cheviot was wrecked. Picture: State Library of Victoria
An 1887 chart by Alfred Martin Ebsworth shows where the SS Cheviot was wrecked. Picture: State Library of Victoria

Did it break down or was it lost striking Corsair Rock, a submerged rock not far off Point Nepean?

As one account suggested, was it broken when the surging waves and currents lifted the ship's entire bow clear of the water?

In its later years, the Cheviot (built in 1870) was plagued with mechanical problems. In March 1886, the ship lost a propeller blade when it slipped backwards on its shaft. Nine months later, the propeller shaft broke.

But the ship was rated A1 by Lloyds after a major overhaul following the broken shaft.

Whatever happened that night, without its propeller, the Cheviot was doomed.

Captain Thomas B. Richardson, later praised for his efforts to save the ship and the people aboard, ordered all hands on deck and for the sails to be set in a desperate bid to avoid the wreck.

But the gale was too strong and the sails too small to have any effect in the conditions.

The Cheviot was driven onto the limestone rocks off the then-unnamed beach about 9pm, and soon broke in two.

The wreck of the SS Cheviot in recent years. Picture: Heritage Victoria
The wreck of the SS Cheviot in recent years. Picture: Heritage Victoria

Those aboard faced a hellish night in the dark with biting winds and pounding surf.

The crew managed to send up distress flares to raise the alarm, but a lifeboat from Queenscliff was initially unable to get through the heads.

It took at least six hours for the lifeboat to reach the scene, as the sea battered the stricken vessel.

According to Heritage Victoria, rescuers fired a lifeline from the shore to the Cheviot about 4am and used a boatswain's chair to rescue 24 people in the aft section of the ship. The last rescued was Captain Richardson.

But the forward section sank with at least 35 people trapped inside.

The final death toll may be 37. It's not clear whether two passengers who boarded shortly before the Cheviot left Melbourne were counted among the 59 thought to have been aboard that night.

Cheviot Beach today. Picture:” Jamie Duncan
Cheviot Beach today. Picture:” Jamie Duncan

It was the deadliest shipwreck to hit the Port Phillip Heads region.

Eight of those killed were buried at the nearby quarantine station.

Captain Richardson was exonerated by the Steam Navigation Board, and Victorian premier awarded him 500 sovereigns (a £500 prize in silver coins) for his bravery.

 

THE HOLT CONNECTION

Harold Holt had a holiday house in Portsea and at Bingil Bay, near Tully in Far North Queensland, in Queensland.

He was always a keen swimmer, but in 1954 was introduced to spearfishing.

It became his recreational passion. He preferred skin diving or snorkelling.

Cheviot Beach, within the prohibited military area on the tip of the Mornington Peninsula and now part of the Point Nepean National Park, with a few strings pulled was an ideal spot for a high profile government minister like Holt.

It was minutes from his Portsea beach house, it was secluded and was perfect for the snorkelling enthusiast because of the low rock shelf where the SS Cheviot came to grief in 1887.

Holt was a frequent visitor to Cheviot Beach.

The memorial cairn for Harold Holt overlooking Cheviot Beach. Picture: Jamie Duncan
The memorial cairn for Harold Holt overlooking Cheviot Beach. Picture: Jamie Duncan

Author Tom Frame, in his 2005 biography The Life and Death of Harold Holt, said that in 1960 the future PM salvaged a porthole from the wreck of the Cheviot. Other sources suggest that, over the years, Holt souvenired two portholes and a length of chain from the wreck.

By the end of 1967, Harold Holt became a part of the SS Cheviot's grim legacy.

There are some that suggest that Holt, whose government was struggling as he left Canberra for Portsea at the end of 1967, was "cursed" for disturbing the wreck.

There are now two memorials to Holt at Cheviot Beach - a cairn overlooking the beach, and an underwater plaque among the rocks.

Originally published as Harold Holt's macabre link to deadly shipwreck


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