Australia’s worst river disaster – the Pearl Ferry incident

The summer of 1896 had seen extensive flooding along the Brisbane River, which had seriously weakened the Victoria Bridge. Piles had been broken, the structure began to sag and all traffic across the bridge was stopped until the extent of the damage could be ascertained.

In February three ferries, Alice, Young and Pearl were brought in take commuters across the river, between Queen’s Wharf and Musgrave Park Wharf in South Brisbane. On February 13, Captain James Chard was piloting the Pearl as heavy floodwaters continued to flow downstream, making it difficult to keep control of the vessel.

The steamer Pearl at a dock
Steamer Pearl, 1896. Image courtesy of Brisbane John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

At around 5pm on 13 February, the Pearl left Queen’s Wharf carrying at least 80 passengers. The ferry steamed down the river a small distance to navigate between the steamer Normanby and the moored government yacht Lucinda.

The following excerpts from the inquisition recount the events leading up to the tragedy. They are from a file, Depositions and Findings in coroners inquest held at Queensland State Archives, ITM348839.

“When close to the Normanby I eased the engines to let her drop astern of the Normanby as I was rather far up stream.”

James Chard, Captain of the Pearl pg. 575

“after that I got the order come ahead again, we were then just on the stern of the Normanby

Walter Tate Pearl engineer pg. 592

“We then dropped back and seemed to pass quite close to the Normanby

Louisa Ellen Janna, passenger pg. 495

“we passed as close to the stern of the Normanby that I could have Jumped on board”

James Wilson, passenger pg. 472

The swirling waters caught the Pearl and thrust her first into the Normanby’s stern and then broadside onto the Lucinda’s anchor chains.

“It was midway between the boiler and the stern when the Pearl struck the Lucinda

George Bel Booth pg. 515 was on the lower deck

“the jibboom of the Lucinda caught the funnel of the Pearl and the very next minute she rose on over chains and then swung round on our starboard side and hung there an instant.”

John Barclay pg. 582

“The force of the collision caused me to tumble off the seat”

Louisa Ellen Jannan pg. 496

The force of the impact was devastating. The Pearl began to immediately capsize, being inundated with water, cut nearly in two by the force of the collision.

“I was then standing up to my waist in water as the Pearl heeled over”

Walter Tate engineer on the Pearl pg. 593

“the chains appeared to cut her [the Pearl] in two… people on the upper deck falling through the opening”

George Bel Booth pg. 515 was on the lower deck

“I ran along the side of the boat and caught hold of the bowsprit of the Lucinda and then climbed on to the Lucinda’s deck”

John O’Sullivan 14 years old was on the Lucinda pg. 618

“I then found myself in the water, I went down and came up again and saw the Pearl sinking… She seemed to break in halves and the suction drew me under again”

Isabella Braidwood pg. 542

“We then went into the water together… When I came to the surface, I kept myself up until a boat picked me up in the water”

James Wilson pg. 475

“I was thrown into the water and my nephew held on … We rose to the surface together and we then went down again and rose again. We seemed to drift with the current and then felt my nephew let go my arm”

Louisa Ellen Jannan pg. 497
Page from the Coroner's Inquest into the pearl ferry disaster
This extract from the Coroner’s Inquest recounts the moment Louisa loses her nephew, 1896; ITM348839

The Pearl sank within seconds. Some passengers managed to escape from the sinking vessel by scaling the anchor chains of the Lucinda, while others were rescued by nearby boats. Immediately after the accident only 34 of the 80 or more passengers were accounted for; the exact number on board couldn’t be verified. Diving operations began to salvage bodies from the wreck and for days after the accident, bodies were still being recovered across Brisbane.

“The body was dressed and appeared to have been in the water sometime”

Sergeant Rox pg. 549 Sunday 16th February describing a body found as far down the river as Hamilton

“I next saw her body lying in a Railway truck at the central station on Monday 17th February”

Alfred James Barnes pg. 539

“I went to the Eagle Farm meat works…. I was there shown the dead body of a man……the body was dressed and appeared to have been in the water sometime”

Patrick Devaney pg. 531
Extract from newspaper article regarding the Pearl ferry river disaster
Fearful River Catastrophe, The Week (Brisbane, Qld. : 1876 – 1934), Friday 21 February 1896, page 20

A subsequent Marine Board of Inquiry was held to determine the circumstances of the tragedy. Captain Chard, who survived the accident, lost his certificate and license after the Inquiry found that he had ‘displayed a want of skill in navigating his vessel.’ It is estimated that around 57 people drowned in the wreck, making the Pearl tragedy the deadliest river accident in Australian history. One commuter aboard the Pearl felt he wasn’t a fit Captain, expressly stating:

“I thought he was under the influence of drink. He did not appear to be standing at the wheel as a man in charge of a boat should do”

James Wilson pg. 476

Cover image: Image of the Pearl Ferry capsizing, 1896, ITM436311

About Queensland State Archives

For more information about Queensland State Archives visit

2 Responses

  1. Rod Foster

    The few years at the beginning of the 1890’s saw significant flooding in the Brisbane River. My Grandfather’s family home was washed away from the farm at Long Pocket in the 1893 flood and floated to near the present Toowong Hotel. Thanks for the ferry boat disaster description.

Leave a Reply