Grace Bussell

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Heroine of the Wreck of the Georgette

In December 1876 the steamship Georgette, carrying 58 crew and passengers and a cargo of timber from Fremantle was making its way down the coast of Western Australia. The little ship had started to leak soon after leaving port, and when the pumps failed, the stokehold flooded. The desperate captain decided to run the ship onto the beach.

Grace Bussell

The passengers on the ship baled furiously, and still under sail, the Georgette headed for the coast and ran aground in pounding seas. A lifeboat was launched, but it capsized, and its occupants were thrown into the sea. Two women and five children were drowned, but four crewmen—brothers Willie and James Dempster, and two men called Dewar and Nunan—rescued the rest and made for shore in the ship’s gig or rowing boat. It took them 12 hours to reach safety.

The Georgette drifted towards land, its boilers out, its sails flapping uselessly. Disaster was imminent, but it was the Georgette’s lucky day. Someone on shore had seen it—Sam Isaacs, an Aboriginal stockman who worked for the Bussell family on their property, Wallcliffe. Sam urged his horse on and galloped 20 kilometres to the Bussell family home near the mouth of the Margaret River.

Grace Bussell

When she heard that a ship was sinking off the coast, Grace Vernon Bussell, the 16-year-old daughter of the house, grabbed a spyglass and ran to a nearby hill. The Georgette was clearly visible, wallowing in rough seas. (There is a family legend that, the night before, Grace had dreamed that a sailing ship with smoke coming from it was smashed on the beach with screaming men and women clinging to the rigging. Believe this if you wish.)

Determined to do something to save the passengers, Grace and Sam grabbed ropes, saddled up and thundered off along the coast. After following the ship to Calgardup, they urged their horses down the cliff and into the water and coaxed them through the breakers. Grace’s horse stumbled on the rope and she almost went under, but she managed make her way to the side of the ship. People grabbed onto the horse, and she rode back to shore with them.

Grace Bussell

Meanwhile, the Georgette was launching lifeboats, but every one of them capsized. It took Grace and Sam four hours to transport all the ship’s passengers to shore. Somehow Grace found the strength to ride home for help, arriving in a state of collapse. Her father, Alfred Bussell, then organised a rescue party, which reached the survivors next morning. They were taken back to Wallcliffe, where Grace’s mother, Ellen, made them comfortable.

Grace Bussell was hailed as a heroine and dubbed ‘The Grace Darling of the West.’ The Royal Humane Society awarded her a silver medal, and Sam Isaacs received a bronze medal for bravery. The Board of Trade gave Grace a gold watch in recognition of her gallant conduct at the wreck of the Georgette. Grace’s father, Alfred Bussell received one hundred pounds compensation from the government for feeding, clothing and housing the survivors.

Grace Bussell

On 20 February 1882, Grace married Frederick Drake-Brockman, a member of a famous pastoralist family, in St Mary’s Church, Busselton. Frederick became the Surveyor General of Western Australia, and was responsible for mapping out telegraph routes and roads in the state’s north-west, as well as marking out the second line of the rabbit-proof fence from the Murchison to Eucla. (For an adventure centred on the rabbit-proof fence, see Molly Craig’s story in Susan Geason’s Australian Heroines, ABC Books, $18.95).

Grace Bussell Drake-Brockman died in 1935, at the age of 75, in Guildford.

The Bussells of Busselton

Grace Bussell came from a distinguished pioneer family. Her father had emigrated to Western Australia from England in 1829 at the age of 14 with his brothers John, Charles, Lenox and Vernon, after their clergyman father died. The Bussell brothers took up land near Augusta on the Blackwood River, then at Adelphi, where they were burnt out, and finally at Vasse. Once the men were established, their three sisters—Mary, Elizabeth and Charlotte—and their mother, Frances, came out to the colony to join them. Their names lives on in the town of Busselton.

Grace Bussell

Grace’s mother, Ellen Heppingstone, was native born. After their marriage, she and Alfred Bussell moved to a 730 hectare landholding which they called Ellen’s Brook after the stream that ran through it. When it was destroyed by fire, they built Wallcliffe, one of the finest colonial homes in Western Australia, near the mouth of the Margaret River. It was the centrepiece of a 24,000 hectare property extending from Cowaramup to the Donnelly River.

Afterword

If you visit the site of the rescue, which is now Redpath Beach, you’ll see just how difficult Grace and Sam’s feat would have been. The shore is rocky and precipitous, with a dangerous, pounding surf. Witnesses on the Georgette later said they didn’t believe anyone could get a horse down that steep cliff. The rock where the ship foundered is now called Isaacs rock, after Sam, the Aboriginal stockman.

The drama proved too much for Grace’s mother, Ellen, whose health was failing. A few weeks after the rescue she died. These were her last words: ‘Fetch them all. I can take them in.’

Ellensbrook, a simple stone cottage with a brook nearby, and the sea a stone’s throw away, is being restored by the National Trust. Wallcliffe is in private hands.

Who was Grace Darling?

Grace Bussell

Grace Darling was born on the Farne Islands off Northumberland in England in 1815, the seventh of nine children of the lighthouse keeper. When the steamship Forfarshire ran onto the rocks off the islands in 1838, Grace and her father braved almost impossible seas in a rowboat, rescuing five people clinging to a rock. The Darlings received gold medals from the Humane Society and 1700 pounds from public subscriptions. Grace became a household name, but resisted all attempts to turn her into a celebrity. She died on the island at 27 from tuberculosis

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