Gold Coast Wreck Conservation Project – Maritime Archaeology Field Practicum
By Peta Fray, post-graduate student University of Leicester
When one thinks of the Gold Coast, certain iconic names come to mind: Surfers Paradise, Miami Beach and, of course, Coolangatta. What is less well known is that Coolangatta is named after a schooner that wrecked on Kirra beach in 1846. It is not surprising, then, that when a 1973 cyclone exposed a wreck on the beach, it was presumed to be the remains of Coolangatta.
This was not the first sighting of the wreck. People previously had reported and, in some cases, even photographed exposed ship remains on the beach in the 1930s and 1950s.
Unfortunately, once the wreck was deemed a public hazard, it was packed with explosives and blown apart. A portion of a wreck believed to be some of the blasted remains floated ashore in 1974. The remnants were poached for souvenirs, but the majority were removed by the Gold Coast City Council and taken to Tugan depot, where they remain to this day.
A section of planking and frames, purportedly from the wreck, was set up as a monument in Queen Elizabeth Park commemorating the city’s namesake shipwreck. Other fragments were used to make a stylised ship sculpture at the Bundall Museum, and an anchor reportedly from Coolangatta is set up on a memorial sandstone obelisk near the beach. Sundry other pieces were turned into plaques and commemorative items gifted by the city to various visiting dignitaries and important persons and now reside in diverse parts of the world.
As the town’s namesake, Coolangatta has obvious local significance, but it also is an important shipwreck nationally as it is an early wreck and especially because it was an early Australian built vessel. But over the years there have been questions about whether the wreckage exposed in 1973 and washed onto the beach the following year was in fact from Coolangatta. Flinders Archaeology Department, in conjunction with Gold Coast City Council and Queensland Government Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (DEHP), undertook an investigation of the disarticulated remains to shed light on their identity, and a remote sensing survey of the Kirra Beach to determine the location of any hull remains or other items from the shipwreck that still may lie buried beneath the sand.
The significance of this project to local residents should not be underestimated. It is generally believed that the various monuments and ship parts exhibited around the town genuinely come from Coolangatta. If this should prove not the case, the community understandably will be disappointed and left with more questions than answers.
The onus on the archaeological team, therefore, was to ensure that our processes and investigations are methodical and thorough. Also, it is critical to engage the public in what we were doing, as the community takes great pride in the history of Coolangatta and the shipwreck memorials are well-known landmarks. Indeed, when we were working at the sites, a representative of the Council was always on hand to answer the numerous queries from the public and reassure them that no damage was being done to the objects. On a number of occasions, team members recording the hull section in the park were approached by passers-by and asked if the memorial was being dismantled, expressing their concern should that be the case.
To facilitate community engagement as well as to publicise the project, the press was contacted and informed of our work. The Gold Coast City Council representative monitoring the team’s work took the lead in engaging any reporters who came to the site and ensured that a consistent message was communicated.
The community engagement had some unexpected benefits for our research as well. On one particular day, a man walking through the park noticed the team recording the hull section monument and stopped to ask what was happening. During the conversation, he informed us that his father was an iconic photographer from the Gold Coast who had taken a number of photos of the exposed wreck back in the 1930s. He kindly showed the team some of the photos from his father’s collection that he had stored digitally on his mobile.
The most exciting development of the week came on the final day of the project when, following a front page story on our work in the Gold Coast Bulletin, the Council was contacted by a member of the public claiming to have seen the wreck in the 1950s. The newspaper story included a front-page photograph of the team surveying Kirra Beach with a magnetometer and a metal detector. The survey area lay on the south side of the creek and had been determined by DEHP based on the recorded location of the 1970s wreck exposure superimposed on a modern map of the area. The gentleman in question, now 84, was a young sand miner at the time and, while chasing a layer of rutile on the beach, to the north of the creek, ran his bulldozer into something so solid that it stopped his machine dead in its tracks; it was the remains of a ship’s hull. According to his recollection, the wreck was located much higher up in the dunes, close to the road, and some distance from our survey area. He described the remains as solid black timbers fastened together with large iron bolts and with no cladding (sheathing).
Knowing how tenuous eye witness accounts can be when dealing with coastal areas where beaches, creek courses and dunes can change rapidly, we still were eager to gather as much testimony from him as possible. His memory was quite detailed, and closely matched elements of a 1954 newspaper report stating that sand miners had uncovered part of a wreck. The gentleman accompanied the team to the park memorial and confirmed that what he had seen on the beach some six decades earlier was completely different than the hull section there on display. Upon initial examination, it would appear that what he had uncovered in the beach dunes all those years ago was a second wreck, buried much higher up from the water.
The question remains then: what are the ship parts on display around town, and does it matter if they are not from Coolangatta? The answer, in my opinion, is a resounding “yes”, and we owe it to the community to provide them with answers. If these are not pieces of Coolangatta, then to what vessel do they belong, and what happened to the remains of their namesake ship?
What is clear, however, is that whatever the outcome of our investigation, the pride of the community of Coolangatta and their affinity for the Coolangatta shipwreck will not be diminished. If anything, this inquiry may spark renewed interest in the ill-fated ship and new enthusiasm to search for its definitive whereabouts. All of us at Flinders Maritime Archaeology are proud to be in some small way part of this fascinating story, and hope to contribute something worthwhile to the local community and its heritage.