EVERYONE likes a good maritime mystery, don’t they?
Especially one that’s about 40 years old, or more likely much, much older.
Weekender recently featured a yarn about a curious metal serpent ornament found buried deep in mud during dredging for a marina.
That was in the 1970s up the NSW coast, in the Camden Haven River, near Laurieton.
It was then donated to the Mid-North Coast Maritime Museum at nearby Port Macquarie. Here it still rests in a glass cabinet labelled as ‘Sea serpent deck ornament from Ben Boyd’s (yacht) Wanderer’.
Built in 1837, Boyd’s opulent armed topsail schooner was once the most famous vessel in the young colony of NSW. Part of the prestigious Royal Yacht Squadron at Cowes, in England, Boy’s private yacht Wanderer remarkably had the same privileges in Sydney Harbour as a British man-o-war, or warship.
READ MORE: Catching up with a slippery serpent
Ben Boyd was a charming, if ruthless, wealthy merchant adventurer. He swept through colonial NSW between 1842 and 1849 when he left, some say fled, in disgrace. Boyd is best known today for establishing the ill-fated settlement of Boydtown, outside of Eden on the far south coast.
After the wreck, people were taking pieces home, even for firewood.
Such is Boyd’s fame, along with his rakish long armed yacht, that a serious attempt is being made to construct a full-scale replica costing about $6 million beside his former Seahorse Inn at Boydtown.
But the story behind the museum’s intricately decorated sea serpent recovered from mud raises more questions than can be answered.
Made of either brass or bronze, the heavy scaly object is likely to have been separated from its twin on an elaborate mounting for a ship’s bell. A similar bell that immediately springs to mind is from the barque Regent Murray wrecked on Newcastle Harbour’s Oyster Bank back in 1899.
This heavy bell was once displayed at the now closed Newcastle Maritime Centre.
However, another historic bell is still on public display today, but you’ll have to travel to the Jervis Bay Maritime Museum (see picture) to see it.
Featuring almost identical metal serpents, they support the big, main bell of the former passenger clipper Sobraon (from 1866). Later this became HMAS Tingira, a training ship run by the Royal Australian Navy (1911-1927) which now has links with a Lake Macquarie suburb.
Built in Scotland, the former migrant ship Sobraon measured 317ft long (97m) and weighed 2131 tons. The barque Regent Murray was roughly two-thirds of her size and weighed 849 tons.
By comparison, Ben Boyd’s sleek, famous yacht was 82ft (25m) long and only weighed either 84, 141 or 240 tons (probably fully loaded), depending on what sources you read.
A very heavy, elaborate ship’s bell featuring sea serpents might seem therefore to be out of place and from an earlier era.
But Ben Boyd’s luxury yacht carried extravagant touches aimed to impress potential financiers being wined and dined onboard to invest in his many major ventures in shipping, wool, beef and whaling.
For example, his original Wanderer had a long, gilt sea serpent at its bow plus guns mounted on carriages resembling dolphins.
Ben Boyd later vanished after stepping ashore among the cannibals in the Solomons.
The secret story is that he ventured accidentally behind a village into a taboo area that contained the women’s toilets. He was caught and clubbed to death. The crew of his ship then navigated back to Australia, but the vessel was wrecked on a Port Macquarie ocean bar in November 1851.
(Mark Boyd searched for his missing brother for years without success before going bankrupt. He knew that without any proof of death under Scottish law, Ben Boyd’s inheritance could not be claimed for at least 100 years.)
The wrecked Wanderer was soon stripped of anything valuable, including its ballast, to sell. Some items were also stolen by locals.
According to Ted Kasehagen, president of the Mid-North Coast Maritime Museum, reports indicate some timbers of the busted ship were recycled and rebuilt into a second, smaller vessel called the Sea Serpent.
“After the wreck people were taking pieces home, even for firewood. Amazing isn’t it,” he said.
The carved gilded sea serpent figurehead supposedly was used to adorn the Sea Serpent. Some ship portholes are now claimed to be in Wagga Wagga with its anchor in the Snowy Mountains. There’s a cannon ball in Port Macquarie’s St Thomas’ Church while a chair and a fancy, porcelain plate are both in Port Macquarie Museum.
What is also without doubt is that the actual bell of the Wanderer, inscribed with the Boyd crest, can be directly traced back to 1852.
The Perdriau family of Sydney gave it to a prominent yacht club, apparently in the mid-1940s. Earlier it had belonged to the late Mosman businessman Henry Perdriau, 89, who had used it for decades as a dinner gong at his home.
After the Wanderer was wrecked at Port Macquarie, Perdriau’s father, a Sydney ferry pioneer, bought the bell and had it installed on his ferry steamer Gipsy Queen.
When this ferry was finally dismantled, Henry Perdriau bought the bell and kept it as a family heirloom.
There was no mention in any literature, however, of any elaborate bell mount featuring twin serpents.
Meanwhile, Phil Bowman, president of the Camden Haven Historical Society, has disputed Boyd’s wrecked ship Wanderer ever being recycled into another vessel with related serpent items.
“Where this museum metal serpent originally came from is a mystery. It could be an ornament off a steamer, it could have been stolen from someone’s house, it could be off anything,” Bowman said.
The last word on the Ben Boyd yacht saga should also go to Bowman. He said after the Wanderer ran aground her crew recovered all 13 ship guns, it seems.
Two major ones were then displayed proudly on Port Macquarie’s Town Green, presumably for auction. With the Christmas festive season close at hand and a few drinks on board, the boisterous crew (all survived the shipwreck) would often let off steam by firing the cannons to celebrate.
The locals were not so impressed though with the frequent racket disturbing the peace and decided to quietly take their own drastic action.
“The (historic) guns were uplifted to an unknown location and buried. They’re there still. It’s now national park country and they probably won’t be found,” Bowman said.
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