William Henry Higgins disastrous arrival in Australia

William Henry Higgins was involved in one of Australia’s early maritime disasters when the Keilawarra collided with the Helen Nicoll. There were 34 survivors of which William Higgins was one. In the midst of the chaos Captain Buttry cried out, “Shame on you men! Have you no thought for the women?” which brought challenges of cowardice amidst the chaos to the men and crew. 41 people lost their lives, only two women survived, Alice Wilson and 12-year-old Alice Cornwell who floated on a bag of maize.

Michael S Parer tells of how William Henry Higgins arrived in Australia in his book Xmas Down South on Damien Parer:

John began work at ‘The Duke’ in its rather grand splendour. William Higgins was cellar man. His ship had collided and was sunk in Sydney Harbour. He was delayed in Melbourne where the shipping company required him to give evidence at the inquest. Although the shipping company offered his job back after the inquest he declined as he had struck up a close friendship with Michael Parer.

Table Talk (Melbourne) Fri 30 Nov 1888 Page 10 Family Notices.png

William Henry Higgins was born in Manchester in 1860. He was the only son of Mr & Mrs W Higgins. In fact William became fast friends of Michael and Maria Parer and John Arthur and Teresa Parer. He later married Maria and Teresa’s sister Winifred Carolin with celebrations at Parer’s Crystal Café and formed many partnerships with John and Michael in the hotel and mining industries. The Higgins and Parer families have been close ever since and are still in contact to this day.

But before he met the Parer’s he crewed on the Keilawarra.

SS KEILAWARRA of Sydney 478 tons-EDIT.jpg
SS KEILAWARRA of Sydney 478 tons.

William was the second steward, age 25 on the Keilawarra which arrived in Sydney on the 1 November 1886. The Keilawarra was a 784 ton steamship of 61 metres in length which was launched in 1878. Commissioned by Melbourne-based William Howard Smith, the Keilawarra arrived in Australia in 1879 and was based in Sydney, plying the coastal routes between Sydney and various ports in Queensland. It is described as “handsomely modelled” and “luxurious” with a saloon capable of holding 50 passengers and the cabins “roomy and well-ventilated”.

Captain Nathan Buttrey of the SS Keilawarra.jpeg
Captain Nathan Buttrey of the SS Keilawarra

The vessel was under command of Captain Nathan Gough Buttrey who was an “officer long and favorably known in connection with the North-eastern coast navigation in the service of the Australian Steam Navigation Company (ASN)” – he served with them for twenty years. He was an experienced seaman who new the waters well. In December 1884 while captain of the Glamworth steamer which left Brisbane for Cooktown the Glamworth was on the reefs near Stone Island in an unsafe position and carried twelve feet of water in the hold sustaining serious damage. Owing to this misfortune the ASN dispensed with his services. He was only several weeks prior made captain of the Keilawarra, having previously held no fixed command and having acted as chief officer or relieving captain in various boats in the Messrs Wm Howard Smith and Sons company.

SS Keilawarra.png

The Keilawarra left Sydney for Brisbane on the 7 December 1886.  Many of the passengers on the Keilawarra  had gone down to their berths and were sleeping when suddenly they were awakened, many for the last time.

The weather being very thick with rain, with a very heavy squall at 8pm. However, at the time of the collision the night was clear with the wind due north. At 8:20pm that night it collided with the Helen Nicoll somewhere north of South Solitary Island. The Keilawarra sank within 7 minutes. 33 people died from the Keilawarra and 6 from the Helen Nicoll.

Map showing South Solitary Island north of which the collission occured..png

Mr James McGeorge, the first mate of the Keilawarra, was in charge of that vessel, and the second mate of the Helen Nicoll was on her watch at the moment the crash came. The smoke of the Helen Nicoll, it is stated, was observed on the Keilawarra half-an-hour prior to the collision. Five minutes after Mr McGeorge went on deck and with the aid of glasses made out smoke right ahead, but could make out no lights; he could not tell whether they were overtaking the steamer or if it was approaching. He called the captain who asked what light was showing. James McGeorge replied, “none”. The captain gave the order to port the helm. A few seconds after McGeorge saw the lights show green and the masthead lights and immediately after the collision took place. The Helen Nicoll struck the Keilawarra on the port bow about 3 ft abft the forward combings of the fore hatch and then swung round parallel with the Keilawarra and went ahead.

John Broadbent McCulloch wrote, “It was a fine clear night with a moon and a fairly smooth sea, travelling at a decent speed of 11 knots. I had just finished my shift on the steamship Helen Nicoll and was relaxing in my cabin when the bell rang twice, indicating another ship was passing. Suddenly I heard the Second Officer call out to the captain, a note of panic in his voice, “Oh God, Captain Fraser, here is a steamer right into us!” and the sound of running on the deck.

“I was just getting to my feet when there came an awful crash.  Under the impression we had run aground somewhere in the North Solitaries, I raced outside catching sight of another ship alongside of us and a gaping hole in the bow of our ship.

“I leant over the rail in an effort to check the depth of our ship and was greatly relieved to see we were in no imminent danger of sinking.

she went down gradually for a few minutes and then suddenly disappeared, the cries and exclamations of the passengers still onboard echoing in the aftermath.

“As I looked across to the Keilawarra I found to my great distress that she was sinking fast. Pandemonium reigned on her deck with women and children wailing and ringing their hands pleading for someone to save them, men rushing to cut down lifeboats, yet other passengers diving into the ocean.

“As the water crept up the deck copious amounts of steam could be seen forming clouds over the scene as the fires below were doused by sea water. In the meantime, Captain Fraser had ordered our three lifeboats to be lowered, but by this time the Keilawarra’s bow had sunk so far forward that her stern was perpendicular to the sea.

“With her screw propelling the whole time she went down gradually for a few minutes and then suddenly disappeared, the cries and exclamations of the passengers still onboard echoing in the aftermath.”


The cries of “We are sinking. We are sinking” were heard.

People crowded the decks. Many on the Helen Nicoll thought their ship was sinking and leaped to the Keilawarra as it was the bigger boat and a likely safer refuge – six did not survive this miss-step. Women shrieked and children cried out in a cacophony of terror.

I saw women rushing about screaming and tearing the hair from their heads; men were also rushing about cursing and swearing; other men were screaming out louder than some of the women. In fact, the scene was one of fearful, terrible and indescribable horror

The Helen Nicoll had struck fairly, almost end on, into the starboard quarter of the Keilawarra, crushing in that vessel’s plating and rending a terrible gash through which the water poured  in a torrent with no hope of staying afloat.

Mr Alfred P James recounts, “I saw women rushing about screaming and tearing the hair from their heads; men were also rushing about cursing and swearing; other men were screaming out louder than some of the women. In fact, the scene was one of fearful, terrible and indescribable horror. I never saw such a terrible sight in my life and I hope to God I will never see another one like it… Ladies who were being knocked about by the flying timber and maddened people who were endeavouring to escape the ill-fated boat. I could see the water dotted with heads and hands being thrown up in the agonies of despair, the unfortunate owners screeching to be saved.

Ladies who were being knocked about by the flying timber and maddened people who were endeavouring to escape the ill-fated boat. I could see the water dotted with heads and hands being thrown up in the agonies of despair, the unfortunate owners screeching to be saved.

Charles Fyfe a sailor on the Keilawarra said, “Our first rouse up was the horrible crash that told us some dreadful disaster had occurred…Passing the forecabin companion on my way aft to escape the destruction forward, I looked down and saw the bulkhead stove in, the water rising and people struggling frantically to save themselves. Finding that the ship was rapidly settling down, I ran aft and tried with others to lower the dingy. No sooner had she left the tackles and gripes than impetuous, fear-stricken crowds wildly and foolishly dashed into her, with the inevitable result – she swamped with all hands, several disappearing beneath the waves. I went in too, but cleared myself and clambered up the side of the sinking vessel. Then seeing a chance with the gig I went for her. A similar scene occurred and seeing my chance escape by boats gone I commenced throwing seats and other moveable timber overboard at the same time calling on the lady passengers to cast themselves into the sea. Few, however, did so.”

“At this time the water had reached the stokehole and this fact was announced by deafening hissing and dense clouds of steam from the drenched furnaces. Then three or four of us with the mate (I think the chief) and one or two engineers, cut the lifeboat adrift and not a second too soon, for hardly had we taken to the boat than the Keilawarra went under us and a friendly wave swept the boat clear of the doomed ship and we road safely on the surface.”

“‘What about the captain?’ well the last I saw of him was as he stood on the bridge handing a lifebuoy to a passenger and one of the men sang out to him. ‘Get into the boat, captain: it might float you’ and the old man said, ‘ Never mind me, my man, save yourself’.”

It was widely reported that Captain behaved heroically. He could not swim, yet gave up his life-belt to another passenger who could not swim either and who subsequently lived. He seemed to accept death to save those in his charge.

William Henry Higgins.jpg

As reported in the article titled ‘Keilawarra Disaster’ in the Northern Star (Lismore) on Saturday 18 December 1886, Page 3:

W. H. Higgins, steward of the Keilawarra, says that immediately before the accident happened he was standing on deck talking to the third-officer, the night being thick, when in the midst of their conversation the third officer cried out, “Here’s a collision,” and almost at once a steamer came into violent, collision with her, striking her with a terrible force under the starboard bow. The Keilawarra, which from the moment the collision seemed inevitable, had reversed way on her, now went full speed astern. Higgins at once stripped himself, and rushing to launch the gig, found that the water was pouring in irresistible volumes into the engine-room. The cries and screams of the unfortunate men and helpless women is described at this time to have been heartrending. Fearing the vessel would burst up with the terrific pressure of the fast incoming flood. Higgins jumped over the side, and striking out from the ship made for the Helen Nicoll. Three attempts he made with Joseph Johnson, a pantryman, to clamber up the cable of the Helen Nicoll, but failed, and was finally dragged on board by a rope held by the chief steward. The latter is entitled to much praise for his work in saving life, several drowning and exhausted castaways coming up over the Nicoll’s forecastle by the rope held by his strong arm.

Mr Alfred P James recalled from the lifeboat, “After the first mate called out I looked round and saw the Keilawarra’s stern riding perpendicularly and she went down as straight as an arrow. As she was going down there were three or four men clambering on the top rail and as she went down they gave a tremendous and idiotic ‘hurrah’ of frenzy.”

he will never forget the night he saw on deck; the women rushing at him and praying in God’s name to save them. Little children, nearly naked, were running about shrieking with fear and clinging to the women, who were quite demented.

Mr Connolly was a steerage passenger on board the Killawarra said, “I remained on the stern, which I gained after considerable trouble, till the vessel went down. There were three others with me. The vessel cracked and smashed in two, and when she was going under we jumped straight out over the stern. I can’t swim, but when I came to the top of the water, I got hold of a spar, and one of the sailors, I think he was a fireman, also got hold of it. I managed to get my legs across it, and then the sailor asked me if I could swim. When I told him I could not, he gallantly said, “Well, I can; you stick to the spar and I’ll try to swim to the boat.” He then left me. I was afterwards picked up by the boat, and was glad to see the brave sailor on board. I had all my clothes on me. We were well looked after on board the Helen Nicoll and the Australian. I don’t know how the accident occurred. It was a clear night and not very rough, although there was a big swell on.”

The Rev Mr Gray, who was a passenger by the Helen Nicoll informed, “the Helen Nicoll as having her bow wedged into the Keilawarra’s side. It was feared that the former vessel would sink, and the terrified passengers were advised, by whom it is not stated, to jump on board the Keilawarra. Numbers did so, Mr Gray among them, but in a few moments the two vessels disengaged themselves from their fatal embrace, and then it was found that the bigger one was doomed.”

Mr Gray continued, “… the captain sang out as loudly as he could, “She will sink in a few minutes, those who can swim must jump off at once, or the suction will draw them down.”

A most discreditable scene followed. The male passengers, made a rush for the life buoys and secured them. Mr Gray tried his utmost to obtain life-buoys for lady passengers, but the gentlemen had already seized them. Being a powerful swimmer, he had no fear for himself, as the Helen Nicoll was but 150 yards away. He did not see the officers or crew seizing the life-buoys, and can warmly praise their devotion to duty and the courage they showed. Taking heed to Captain Battrey’s warning, he sprang into the sea and struck out for the boat he had just left. As he swam towards her, he passed numbers of persons struggling for their lives in the water, and had a narrow escape of being clutched and dragged down. Just as he reached the Helen Nicoll a cry which the reverend gentleman describes as “one the like of which I never heard before and pray God I may never hear again” came from the sinking ship. Looking back towards her he saw that her stern was black with people. Then she seemed to plunge forward, and with a last despairing shriek, some forty human lives were suddenly terminated.

“I have had many experiences of accidents,” said Mr Gray, “I was present at the Cootamundra railway accident, but never have I seen or heard of such a dreadful one as this. I cannot describe the awful horror of seeing that ship, with a crowd of fellow creatures shrieking for aid, plunge suddenly into the depths of the sea, and the cry of agony they sent up. I cannot describe it, but it rings in my ears yet.” The reverend was visibly affected as he spoke of the dreadful spectacle he had witnessed, and as he finished speaking, loud sounds of wailing and lamentation made their way to the upper deck of the Australian, where he was standing. Mr Gray states that the night was fine and a bright moon rendered objects distinct, so that he cannot understand how two ships with lights burning could thus collide.

Helen Nicoll, possibly off Bradleys Head and Clifton Gardens, 1900-1932.

The Helen Nicoll was passing Solitary Islands on her return to Sydney from Clarence River, in the darkness the other vessel was not discovered until the collision took place. The Helen Nicoll while badly damaged, all the damage appeared to be above the water line and jettisoned 60 tons of cargo. The Helen Nicoll limped back to Sydney under escort from the Australian which had unloaded all the passengers and survivors of the crash.

When the Australian and Helen Nicoll arrived at Messrs John See and Co.’s Wharf in Sydney, there was a great deal of anxiety and interest. Police were required to control the large crush of people at the entrance gates. The Sydney papers described the scenes as thus:

“The anxiety felt by those who were waiting  for expected friends or relatives by either of the steamers was fully evident by the expressions borne upon their faces. Old men were there waiting patiently and hopefully, with moist eyes for tidings of their loved ones, hoping, yet doubting, for their safety. Women were there, some with young children clasped in their arms, sitting quietly on the bags of maize with which the wharf was covered. At last the Australian was seen coming slowly up at a few minutes after ten and as soon as she warped alongside a crowd of anxious inquirers perfectly stormed her.

“…then followed some scenes of gladness and joy and thankfulness and many of blank despair, as the anxious searchers and inquirers became assured that those they sought for had perished in the disastrous collision.

“When the Helen Nicholl had been berthed, the mother of one of the crew, who was lost, rushed around hysterically in and out of the ship, crying piteously for her son. There was hardly a dry eye among the many spectators of this distressing scene. The poor woman was a widow and lost her only son.”

Grave of unknown male victim (Photo Brad Duncan, Heritage Branch).png
Grave of unknown male victim. Photo: Brad Duncan, Heritage Branch.

Only two unidentified bodies were ever recovered from the collision washed ashore. Their graves are located on Shelly Beach at Dammerels Head. At the time of the search for the bodies, three days after the collision, Captain Walker of the steam tug Ranger were of the opinion that the wreckage and bodies, if not immediately sunk, will have been carried south-eastward by the currents and would be thirty miles from the collision site. Pilot Stewart opinioned that some vessel coming from New Zealand will most likely pickup some wreckage.

The Marine Board held an inquiry into the disaster which was protracted. They blamed Captain Buttrey for “recklessly navigating his vessel ”, in not slowing when lights had been seen ahead, and for cutting across the Helen Nicoll’s  path. The court also severely censured Mr Knowles, First Mate of the Helen Nicoll, for proceeding at full speed – his certificate was suspended for three months.

Subsequent to the inquiry, new regulations were introduced for all coastal steamers to carry sufficient lifebelts to the passengers, stowed for easy release. It also recommended that the South Solitary lighthouse should be placed in telegraphic communication with the mainland. As this would have meant the laying of submarine cable, a compromise was reached by building a signal station on Dammerel’s Headland.

A diving team led by John Riley located the wreck site on 18 September 2000 in 74 metres of water. The safe was raided by professional thieves in 2015.

In amongst all this drama, William Henry Higgins survived and came to Melbourne and met Michael Parer at Parer’s Crystal Café and the story faded into family myth.

Photographer Mark Spencer has revisited the 126-year-old shipwreck of the Keilawarra off the coast of Arrawarra. The ship's telegraph is still in the full-astern position.jpg
Photographer Mark Spencer has revisited the 126-year-old shipwreck of the Keilawarra off the coast of Arrawarra. The ship’s telegraph is still in the full-astern position.


  1. The Brisbane Courier (Qld) Fri 10 Dec 1886 Page 5 ‘Loss of the Keilawarra’.
  2. Northern Star (Lismore) Sat 18 Dec 1886 Page 3-4 ‘Keilawarra Disaster’.
  3. Mount Alexander Mail (Vic) Sat 11 Dec 1886 Page 3 ‘LOSS OF THE KEILAWARRA.–ARRIVAL OF THE SURVIVORS IN SYDNEY’.
  4. Leader (Melbourne) Sat 11 Dec 1886 Page 29-30 ‘ANOTHER MARINE DISASTER’.
  5. Launceston Examiner (Tas) Fri 10 Dec 1886 Page 3 ‘ANOTHER MARATIME DISASTER’.
  6. The Capricornian (Rockhampton) Sat 8 Jan 1887 Page 15 ‘THE KEILAWARRA DISASTER’.
  7. Evening Journal (Adelaide) Thu 9 Dec 1886 Page 2 ‘The Keilawarra’.
  8. The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW) Sat 8 Jan 1887 Page 64 ‘The Keilawarra’.
  9. Northern Star (Lismore) Sat 15 Jan 1887 Page 3 ‘The Keilawarra Disaster’.
  10. Freeman’s Journal (Sydney) Sat 8 Jan 1887 Page 19 ‘THE KEILAWARRA DISASTER’.
  11. The Kiama Independent, and Shoalhaven Advertiser (NSW) Fri 14 Jan 1887 Page 2 ‘The Keilawarra Disaster’.
  12. Illustrated Sydney News (NSW) Fri 7 Jan 1887 Page 4 ‘The Collision between the Helen Nicoll and the Keilawarra’.
  13. Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW), Saturday 11 December 1886, page 1238.
  14. Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate (NSW) Sat 11 Dec 1886 Page 5 ‘The Keilawarra Disaster’.
  15. The Brisbane Courier (Qld) Fri 29 Jan 1932 Page 12 ‘THE KEILAWARRA’.
  16. Launceston Examiner (Tas) Wed 15 Dec 1886 Page 3 ‘KEILAWARRA DISASTER’.
  17. The Daily Telegraph (Sydney) Fri 10 Dec 1886 Page 5 ‘THE CREW OF THE KEILAWARRA’.
  18. The Daily Telegraph (Sydney) Wed 5 Jan 1887 Page 4 ‘THE KEILAWARRA DISASTER’.
  19. NSW Heritage Office, 2002, ‘Keilawarra Disaster 1855, Information Sheet’.
  20. The Coffs Coast Advocate, 21 May 2012, Matt Deans, Photos by Mark Spencer, ‘Divers revisit the Keilawarra wreck’.
  21. Toowoomba Chronicle and Darling Downs General Advertiser (Qld) Sat 11 Dec 1886 Page 3 ‘Captain Buttrey’.
  22. South Australian Register (Adelaide) Wed 17 Dec 1884 Page 5 ‘THE STEAMER GLANWORTH ASHORE’.
  23. The Daily Telegraph Captain’s ill-fated judgment left 40 people lost at sea after collision of SS Keilawarra and SS Helen Nicoll‘, Troy Lennon, History editor.
  24. The Richmond River Herald and Northern Districts Advertiser (NSW) Fri 31 Dec 1886 Page 4 ‘Captain Buttrey—Shipmaster and Hero’.
  25. ABC, by Karen Filewood, ‘Memoirs of a Sailor – Collision off the Solitary Islands‘.

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