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Otago Daily Times  
July 21st July 1956

Our sincere thanks to Judith Harper for this transcription.

Memories Revived of Early Otago Shipwreck

Memories of one of Otago's most sensational shipwrecks are revived by the Visit to Dunedin of Mr J. Bryan, who is staying with his son, Mr M. Bryan, of Mornington. Mr Bryan's own recollection of the foundering of the Surat on January 1, 1874, is rather less than dim, for he was only an infant at the time. But the happening provided the province and the colony with a major news item.

“There were, allegations that the captain had threatened to run his vessel ashore. It is certain that he became drunk and threatened with his revolver passengers who were trying to signal for help from a passing ship.”


And, when the Surat was sold where she lay in the Catlins River, the conditions of sale included all the baggage left behind by the passengers when they escaped from the wreck. The Surat sailed from Gravesend on September 28, 1873. It was a gruelling voyage, but uneventful -until the night of December 31, when the ship struck a rock, bumped and grated clear, and continued on her course. The rock is believed to have been near Chaslands Mistake but the facts were never ascertained.

At first there was no sign of a leak, but later in the night it was found that she was making an alarming amount of water. The crew and male passengers manned the pumps until they were exhausted. Then the women were called upon to take their turn.

The steamer Wanganui hove in sight to leeward of the Surat and passengers attempted to signal. Drawing his revolver, the drunken captain threatened to shoot any≠one who made a signal. The Wanganui steamed on, unaware of the trouble so close to its course. No attempt was made by members of the crew to persuade the captain to change his mind. Mr Bryan says that the stories told him by his parents and other survivors were all to the effect that most of the crew members were also intoxicated.

Terrified, the passengers entreated the captain to give them at least a chance to save their lives. Eventually he anchored the ship in Jacks Bay, a short distance south of Catlins River. About 100 of the 271 passengers had been landed when it was found that the ship was in danger of going down. The cable was slipped, sail set, and the Surat was beached on the sand spit on the northern side of the entrance to Catlins River. The harbour master there safely landed the remaining passengers.

But the troubles of the Bryan family were by no means over. They were taken in and sheltered   by a single sawmill worker. During the period of waiting for help to come from, Dunedin, Mr Bryan sen., and others helped fell timber. One evening the saw miller, without warning, lunged at Bryan with a long-bladed bush knife. He was obviously deranged and it was only by  strength and luck that the shipwrecked  immigrant was able to escape to the shelter of the hut.

That very night the Bryans left for another sawmill camp. They were empty-handed, for all their gear was on the Surat. They never saw it again. The wreck of the ship was sold where it lay for £7,000, the purchase including the passengers’ luggage and effects. The conditions of sale were legal, and only the generosity of Dunedin people compensated those survivors who reached the city.

The only person who saved anything was a woman who clung tight to a trinket box at the moment when the breaching of the ship flung people over the side.

The Bryans did not draw on the
Dunedin fund for the head of the family remained in the Catlins district, achieving some measure of fame as a sawyer during a lifetime of work in Southland sawmills.

The Surat, which was a full-rigged ship of 1,000 tons register, carried a valuable cargo of railway iron.  It is believed that little if any was recovered.  The captain had his certificate cancelled and was imprisoned for neglect of duty. The first officer had his certificate cancelled, and the second officer was suspended for two years.

“I don’t remember maybe, but its part of the family history,” says Mr Bryan, whose wiry frame and springy step belie the weight of years.

Also –
Death notice for Mr John (Jack)
BRYAN - Otago Daily Times, March 28th 1959
Obituary for Mr John (Jack)
BRYAN - Otago Daily Times,  October 30th 1959