On June 1, 1878 a 263 foot clipper ran aground on Muttonbird Island , situated on Victoria’s now infamous Shipwreck Coast. What’s most interesting about this tragedy is that of the 17 crew and 37 passengers, only two survived.
One male, one female.
It’s a scenario straight out of the pages of a romance novel, or Hollywood classic. Certainly one that could have led to soul mates uniting in the face of tragedy, affording them a mesmerizing recount of how they met. A story their grandchildren would have passed onto their own grandchildren in meticulous detail.
But, unfortunately for us romantics, it didn’t quite happen that way…
On a 3 month journey from England to Melbourne, 15 year old apprentice, Tom Pearce and 17 year old Irish immigrant, Eva Carmichael’s ship, the Loch Ard, became lost in pea soup type fog. It soon became yet another of the maritime disasters that had plagued the 160km region of coast. Between the years 1836 to 1940, over 638 known vessels had come to grief on the rugged Victorian coastline. Only 240 of them have ever been found.
I have visited this area many times and can testify that this coast is rugged- fierce, violent and unrelenting. The sea throws itself around with such turmoil that a limping vessel would surely be swallowed hole by the mountainous waves, only to be thrust under the pounding sea with such force that if it were ever to resurface again, it would only be as splinters and shards of wreckage.
The water is a chilling to the bone 12 deg C- the nearest land mass (latitude) is Antarctica.
The cliffs of the coast tower 70 metres, (230 foot) above sea level; a sheer vertical drop.
Yet at 4am on June 1, 1878, this is what two teenagers survived to go on and tell the greatest love story that never happened.
Imagine the cold, dark Winter pre-dawn hours on an aggressive sea. Suddenly, as the fog lifts the ship strikes a reef and the top deck is torn from the hull, killing crew and passengers as its three masts and rigging come crashing down. Some were knocked overboard into the ocean, while others hid below deck, attempting to avoid the carnage, only to drown when the ship sank just 15 minutes later.
Tom Pearce managed to release a lifeboat, which then capsized after crashing into the side of the Loch Ard. He clung to the upturned hull, managing to survive the enormous swells as he drifted further out to sea.
Eva Carmichael ran up to the deck only to see the chaos unfolding before her. The Loch Ard’s commander, a 29 year old newlywed, Captain Gibbs, took Eva’s hands in his and said: “if you are saved Eva, let my dear wife know that I died like a sailor”.
That was the last Eva saw of Gibbs as she was swept off the deck by a wave. For 5 hours she clung to a chicken coop and then a boat oar. Five hours in 12 degree water, being thrown to and fro like a rag doll. Don’t forget the heavy layers of clothes a young woman wore in 1878, and how much this would have weighed her down in the water. It’s miraculous that she survived at all.
Tom was swept back into shore and into the (now named) Loch Ard Gorge, where he sheltered in a cave. Sometime later, he heard the cries of a woman in the ocean. Bravely he swam out and retrieved the nearly unconscious and exhausted Eva, and brought her back to the cave to rest.
He found a crate of Brandy and opened a bottle for them to share to help with the shock.
Shortly afterwards, he climbed the sheer cliff and was able to find hoof prints, which he followed until he came across two local workers from Glenample Station, nearly three miles away. He relayed the events of the tragedy to them and they set off to raise the alarm.
Tom then returned to the cave, climbing down the cliff, and continued looking after Eva until help arrived.
They both spent up to 6 weeks recuperating at Glenample Station and Government House, and so had ample opportunity to get to know each other and fall in love- which is what we are expecting to happen. However Eva returned to Ireland and later married a Captain Townshend, while Tom, after being hailed as a hero for rescuing Eva, returned to a life at sea.
According to a 1936 newspaper article in The Argus, M. Mosely* claimed to have spoken with Eva Carmichael, by that stage, Mrs Townshend of the Irish coast. He asked her why she didn’t marry Tom, to which she replied:
“It must be nearly 50 years since I have been asked that. Once it was always being thrust at me.”
Then she went on: “Why should I have married Tom Pearce?” He was a seaman, she explained, although he came of good family, and had an uncle with money who would have helped him. But he ran away to sea. He was engaged at the time of the wreck, but owing to the peculiar circumstances of his saving her he offered to break his engagement and marry her; indeed he pressed her to agree. However, as they had nothing in common, she felt that it would be wrong. So, after having stayed as a guest at Government House while funds were collected, she went back to her grandmother in Ireland, having lost her father, mother, brothers, and sisters in the wreck.
Perhaps even stranger was this story. She told me that when living on the Irish coast she and her husband were constantly called out to help survivors from wrecks. On one occasion who should fall to her care but Tom Pearce!
So, there you go- probably one of the greatest love stories never told. Although I would love to have read about a romance blossom between these two, I am quite impressed by a young woman, who after losing her entire family, and being marooned in a strange country, still had the courage to make up her own mind and not marry someone she didn’t love with her whole heart. Well played, Eva!
* This is the only source for this particular ‘interview’, so it’s credibility is in doubt. There was no other documented case of Eva Carmichael/Townshend making this statement.