From the river Wear 12,000 miles to the land down under

Since migration to Australia began around 1788, numerous Wearsiders have made the 12,000-mile plus voyage seeking a better life and prosperity.

Thursday, 16th January 2020, 11:22 am
The Wallarah at sea in 1952.

Discovery of gold in New South Wales in 1851 prompted a ‘gold rush’ with many British citizens prepared to give up everything for the chance of making a fortune.

Construction of the 213-ton two-masted snow Lizzie Webber in 1852 for Captain Thomas Rowntree of Sunderland and John Webber, a Sussex timber merchant, seems to have resulted from an opportunist business partnership formed to cash-in on public demand for passage to Australia. She was said to be the first emigrant ship to leave Sunderland for the colony.

Although the actual builder is unverified, it is generally accepted that she was built on the Wear by John Pile.

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The day arrived on Saturday, July 31, 1852, when Lizzie Webber with some 75 emigrants on board departed from South Dock for Sunderland Anchorage watched by thousands of spectators. Also on board were around 250 well-wishers saying their final farewells.

The next day, with Captain Rowntree in command, Lizzie Webber weighed anchor and set sail for Melbourne, Victoria via the Cape of Good Hope. Most of the emigrants were from the North East of England, among them being grocers, drapers, labourers, shipwrights, miners, joiners and farmers.

They reached Melbourne on or about December 12, 1852 after a passage of some 165 days. Only about 65 passengers landed there, with the rest having disembarked en route and one having died.

Lizzie Webber continued in service, trading in Australian and South East Asian waters but her ultimate fate is unknown.

Almost exactly 100 years on, an extraordinary coincidence arose when another Sunderland-built ship left the Wear carrying emigrants for Australia.

This time she was the 1,448 gross-ton collier Wallarah, which had been launched by SP Austin and Son on February 2, 1952, to the order of Wallarah Coal Company of London and Sydney, New South Wales.

William France Fenwick and Company was appointed to superintend construction, with triple-expansion steam engines being supplied by North Eastern Marine Engineering Company (1938) Ltd of South Docks.

The launching ceremony was performed by Mrs FCS Parbury, wife of the owners’ chairman.

One special feature was special mooring arrangements to meet testing conditions during loading in the open sea at Catherine Hill Bay on the East Coast of Australia.

As the ship would not be returning to the UK after her maiden voyage to Sydney, it was arranged for Wallarah’s crew to comprise of seafarers wishing to settle in Australia – 21 in all.

Wallarah left the Wear on May 4, 1952, arriving safely at Sydney on July 9, that year – more than three months sooner than Lizzie Webber.