Water Witch Sinks
The Water Witch was built in Hobart by John Gray in 1835 as a 25-ton single masted wooden cutter and was bought by Gawler for South Australia in 1839. Amongst other duties, she ran supplies to Eyre.
Despite a reputation as a fine sailing vessel, she soon began to take water and became unseaworthy, a huge disappointment for so young a vessel. The government tried to sell her, but received no offers. She was berthed at Wellington on the northern end of Lake Alexandrina in September 1841. Corporal George Mason, in charge of her there, reported:
There is more trouble in looking after the cutter Water Witch than you may be aware of as she makes two feet and a half of water (76 cm) every day! If she were not pumped every day, the ropes in her hold would all be rotten. Her sails also require to be hoisted after every shower to prevent them becoming mildewed.
On Grey’s orders, Scott and Pullen took her to Moorundi in October 1841 where Eyre used her as his secure lockup. At the time he was still living under canvas with only flimsy reed huts to supplement his tents and had no other safe gaol.
Eyre warned the Colonial Secretary on the 18th April 1842 that the Water Witch was “greatly in need of repair from long exposure to the weather and from not having been repaired or repainted for a long time.” His timely warnings went unheeded.
She sank at Moorundi during a storm on the 5th December 1842.
“There had been a strong Southerly gale up the river during the day,” wrote Eyre, “and a heavy swell rising in the river. The cutter laboured greatly and drifted a little. Her seams above the water had long been quite open and prone to the weather and for not having been caulked for a great length of time, so that having made a little water and sunk somewhat deeper; she was like a sieve in the river and filled so rapidly that nothing could be done to save her. Nor was there time even to move her into shallow water before she went down. Every effort has since been made which our means admitted of to try to raise the vessel, but hitherto without success. With about a dozen good water tight casks I think she might be got afloat again, but there are none at the Station.”
In time, the exact position of the sunken vessel became lost. But could the Water Witch, the first ship to sail into the Murray mouth from Encounter Bay on May 8th 1841, be located and raised as an archaeological treasure? She was just one of 69 wrecked vessels in the muddy waters of the Murray. Modern attempts to find it began in 1970 but were unsuccessful at first.
However, there is a sketch by Edward Frome drawn in March 1842 which shows a sail boat near to Eyre’s home. Because it was known that no other ship had sailed up the Murray to Moorundi besides the Water Witch, and that it was single-masted similar to the ship in Frome’s sketch, it must have been the ship depicted. Therefore the position of the ship in the picture, if it could be identified, could indicate where the Water Witch had sunk. It was a long shot, but in the absence of other clues, the archaeologists decided to pursue it.
Eyre’s buildings had long disappeared through flooding and could not be located using the sketch. Trees, though, had outlived both him and his settlement. Matching Frome’s pen and ink sketch of March 1842 to existing trees along the bank located the wreck! A dive in August 1982, almost 140 years after the sinking, established its exact position and an archaeological investigation was subsequently launched.
Unfortunately the ship had broken up too badly to consider a full restoration, but artefacts were removed and tests done. Interesting information was discovered regarding the construction of colonial ships built in Australia, about which little detail had been known. For example, it was a surprise that very little Tasmanian timber was identified, the rest having originated on mainland Australia. A heavy cast iron stove was another surprise, as was a sophisticated toilet system that flushed. This was most likely a model designed by Thomas Crapper because a very similar design is found in his book Flushed with Pride.
Today the site has been declared an Historic Shipwreck and is inspected periodically to monitor its condition. The majority of the structure lies on the muddy river bottom and is covered by hundreds of sandbags to afford it some protection.