In a post by dotcommerce.ro called You think you had bad luck ? Think again! this story was mentioned:

It’s either a case of the worst luck in history or the best:

In 1829, a ship called The Mermaid was four days away from her destination of Sydney, Australia, when a massive storm struck and drove the ship into a reef. All twenty-two people on board survived and were able to swim to safety.

Three days later, the Swiftsure rescued them.

Five days later, the Swiftsure sank.

Victims from both ships were rescued by the schooner Governor Ready.

Three hours later, the Governor Ready caught fire.

The Comet pulled everyone from lifeboats and brought them aboard.

Five days later, the Comet sank. (The crew went for help in the longboat, leaving the passengers floating in the water.)

Eighteen hours later, the mail boat Jupiter pulled everyone out of the ocean.

In under twelve hours, the Jupiter sank.

Everyone was rescued by the passenger vessel The City of Leeds.

Four days later, The City of Leeds docked in Sydney, Australia.

The bad luck was that five ships were lost—the good luck was that not a single person died.

This tale is copied elsewhere on the web, but it's never backed up by references.

As far as I'm concerned, it isn't true. Wrecksite.eu has a record of a ship called the Mermaid that sank in 1829, but it's a European site and Mermaid is a common ship name (as evidenced by the other results), so its bearing on the disaster is doubtful.

Wikipedia's convenient list of shipwrecks in 1829 mentions Swiftsure, Governor Ready, Comet, and Jupiter, but they wrecked so far apart as to be implausible for the tale.

  • This story is also featured in the ad section of the Apr 1910 Popular Mechanics (attributed to Nautical Gazette, but I couldn't find the original source). The times between mishaps are a bit different from the OP's version, but this is an old, notable story for sure.
    – Is Begot
    Apr 13, 2015 at 17:14
  • @Geobits We've gone from 186 years removed to 81. That's still a lifetime away.
    – EMBLEM
    Apr 13, 2015 at 17:15
  • 1
    Sure, just giving an example of the claim from another era. It could still be an old fisherman's tale. Maybe somebody else will have luck finding a better source with that citation.
    – Is Begot
    Apr 13, 2015 at 17:20
  • 4
    @georgechalhoub Despite the initial vowel letter, it's the initial consonantal sound (/j/) that matters.
    – EMBLEM
    Apr 13, 2015 at 17:29
  • Oops. I changed the title to "passengers" without considering that there might have only been crew on board. Is there a better term?
    – Oddthinking
    Apr 14, 2015 at 5:14

3 Answers 3


Dr. Thomas Braidwood Wilson of the Royal Geographical Society kept a daily log published in 1835 as Narrative of a Voyage Round the World; Comprehending an Account of the Wreck of the Ship Governor Ready in Torres Straits, which together with other first-hand accounts prove that the story in the OP is largely false:

The Mermaid wrecked 13 June 1829. "The crew took to the whale-boat, and, after three days, were picked up by the schooner Admiral Gifford, and shortly afterwards sent on board the Swiftsure; which ship was, on July 5th, wrecked off Cape Sidmouth" (quoting from page 83).

The Mermaid and Swiftsure crews were brought to land at Raffles Bay by the Resource 22 July 1829.

The Amity was in port at Raffles Bay when the Resource arrived and had been expecting the Mermaid, but the Resource came instead.

A detailed first-hand account of the wreck of the Governor Ready is also given, but this was an earlier event.

The Governor Ready was irreparably damaged at 2:45 PM 18 May 1829 (see page 12). The crew travels in three of their smaller boats (skiff, jolly-boat, long-boat) until they meet the docked Amity on 02 June 1829 (see pages 45-49). At this point the crew of the Governor Ready separates, Captain Young going to Batavia on the long boat, and Dr. Wilson going to Raffles Bay on the Amity. The Amity reaches Raffles Bay 2PM 31 June 1829 (see page 71).

Given that the author Dr. Wilson was actually aboard the Governor Ready when the wreck occurred, and personally met with the master of the Mermaid when the Mermaid crew arrived on the Resource, the portion of the story in the question concerning the Governor Ready is inaccurate.

As for the Comet, as reported in 19 October 1829 London Times, explaining that the second officer and a seaman of the Comet arrived in Cowes on 17 October (on the Maria having departed Batavia 30 June) to account for the wreck of the Comet to her owners and:

The 2nd officer stated that the Comet sailed from Sydney for Batavia on the 13th of April, made Torres Strait on the 5th of May. On the 6th at 4 a. m., thick weather, struck on a reef ... and was a complete wreck, the surf running so high that no boat could be put out obliged the crew to remain three days exposed ...subsisting on raw beef; at the expiration of that time succeeded ...steered north for Murray's Island, at 4PM saw it, and a brig at anchor; at 6 got on board, which proved to be the Fairfield, of Aberdeen, Captain Both, who recieved us politely, and attended to our immediate wants

As for the Jupiter, in the same article the 2nd officer continues:

on the 14th of May the Fairfield spoke the ship Jupiter...which had struck on Boot reef...she was proceeding to Calcutta for repairs

The 2nd officer further states:

Prior to the Maria's leaving Batavia, Captain Young, formerly of the ship Governor Reading [sic], of London, had arrived there with part of his crew, that ship having been unfortunately wrecked on a shoal in the vicinity of Murray's Island

So the order of events is:

6 May 1829: Comet wrecks (crew rescued by Fairfield)

14 May 1829: Jupiter is proceeding to Calcutta for repairs

18 May 1829: Governor Ready wrecks (crew eventually reaches the Amity 02 June)

13 June 1829: Mermaid wrecks (crew eventually rescued by the Admiral Gifford, transferred to Swiftsure)

5 July 1829: Swiftsure wrecks (crew rescued by Resource)

22 July 1829: Resource brings crews of Mermaid and Swiftsure to port at Raffles Bay where the Amity is expecting the Mermaid.

From this timeline is can be seen that the story in the OP is very inaccurate.

That the Mermaid and Swiftsure crews were transferred to the Resource rather than the Governor Ready is further corroborated by a letter from Samuel Nolbrow, the captain of the Mermaid published in the 30 October 1829 Colonial Times article, which further confirms:

Governor Ready wrecked 3PM on 18 May 1829.

Mermaid was abandoned 8PM 13 June 1829

Swiftsure was lost 4 July 1829 and crew was rescued by Resource.

Date of Comet wreck is not stated, but article says crew was rescued by the Fairfield.

As further confirmation see the first hand account of Collet Barker, commander of the Raffles Bay settlement publishied as Commandant of Solitude: The Journals of Captain Collet Barker, 1828-1831, which explains that Dr. Wilson first wrecked on the Governor Reidy [sic], and came to Raffles Bay on the Amity. Then on 22 July the Resource arrived with the crews of the Mermaid and Swiftsure.

Additionally, published in Historical Records of Australia: Despatches and papers relating to the settlement of the states, Australia Parliament Joint Library Committee, at page 835, is a 22 August 1829 letter from Collet Barker:

...loss of the Mermaid, which I regret to state was wrecked in Torres Strait on the 13 June. Her crew were all saved and were brought here by the Resource, the Master of which wished to have left them in consequence of being short of provisions and having with him the crew of another wrecked vessel, the Swiftsure. He consented however to take them except the Master, Mr. Nolbrow, on my supplying them with thirty two days provisions. I ordered Mr. Nolbrow on board the Amity and receiving an urgent request from Mr. Hastings, Chief Mate, and Thos. Long, Seaman, to be allowed to go to Sydney, I also ordered them a passage in the same vessel

Also, the Jupiter arrived in Calcutta 5 July 1829, as recorded at page 32 of The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register for British and Foreign India, China and Australasia, vol. 1, January-April 1830 and was not unrepairable but instead was in service in the Persian Gulf by May of 1830 (Calcutta Magazine and Monthly Register, October 1830, page 87).

Also in the above volume of Asiatic Journal:

The Swiftsure, Johnson, of London, from New South Wales, was wrecked 4th July Torres Straits. The crew and passengers were saved by the Resource, Smith, and had arrived at the Mauritius 17th Aug., with part of the cargo, stores &c.

So in summary the first hand accounts of Dr. Wilson, captain Nolbrow, and Collet Barker all show that the only true parts of the story are that the Mermaid wrecked, the crew was rescued by the Swiftsure which also wrecked and both crews were rescued. It is also true that the Governor Ready and Comet wrecked in the same time period, but these were earlier events, and the Mermaid crew was not rescued by these ships.

The inaccurate tale in the OP originates from a 26 November 1829 story in the Sydney Gazette, which could easily be mistaken for the truth, but for the existence of Mermaid Captain Nolbrow's 30 October 1829 letter published in the Colonial Times, the day-by-day accounts of Dr. Wilson and Collet Barker, and the account of 2nd officer of the Comet in the 19 October 1829 London Times.

The evidence agrees with the conclusion of maritime historian Charles Bateson, as stated in his book Australian Shipwrecks: 1622-1850 at page 87:

...both crews were rescued by the Resource which landed them at Port Raffles...statement that crews of the Mermaid and Swiftsure were taken aboard the Governor Ready and after the latter's wreck all three crews were wrecked in the Comet and finally, along with the Comet's crew, in the Jupiter, is ridiculous

  • 3
    I have added a contemporary source for the ANMM version to my answer. However, your researched version is pretty convincing too. I actually didn't pay attention to the dates when I was initially looking things up. But this Trove link (which I've also used in my answer oblivious to the sequence mismatch) from Nov, 1829, notes the involvement of the Resource in the rescue of the Swiftsure. Rather than amending mine, I'd prefer to see you expanding yours and have both answers coexist.
    – user7920
    Apr 14, 2015 at 16:19
  • 1
    Other (earlier) articles which might also be of use: 1, 2, 3, 4.
    – user7920
    Apr 14, 2015 at 16:31
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    @coleopterist Great finds! I'll work some of those into the answer. Seems like the 26 November 1829 in the Sydney Gazette started the story, but that the article is inaccurate.
    – DavePhD
    Apr 14, 2015 at 17:10
  • 1
    @coleopterist I could, but I'm trying to use primary sources
    – DavePhD
    Apr 16, 2015 at 16:03
  • 1
    @coleopterist ok, I linked to his wikipedia article and book, and gave the page number of the quoted passage
    – DavePhD
    Apr 16, 2015 at 16:21

HMS Mermaid
The HMS Mermaid

The account is largely true.

The Royal Navy's HMS Mermaid (after a distinguished career) did sink in 1829. The Australian National Maritime Museum salvaged the wreck in 2009 and wrote about the ship (and the subsequent misfortune) in its quarterly magazine, Signals.

Quoting from page 17 of the March-April-May issue:

That afternoon at 1730, during another attempt to drive the vessel over the reef, Mermaid rolled over onto her beam ends and within a few minutes the hull was breeched. At 2000 hours the crew abandoned ship and took to the boats.

On 24 June 1829, after 11 days in the open boats, the crew were rescued by the small schooner Admiral Gifford. On account of overcrowding, the survivors were transferred to the much larger wooden brig Swiftsure on 3 July – and on board this vessel they were promptly wrecked again off Cape Sidmouth, just 18 hours later! According to The Sydney Gazette of 26 November 1829, the crew of the Mermaid was to endure two further shipwrecks (on Governor Ready and Comet) before being landed at Port Raffles. Here they embarked on the government brig Amity which sailed westwards for King George Sound, before finally returning some of the crew to Sydney five months later.

An interview with the museum's curator reiterates this account.

So, there's no mention in this write-up of the mail boat, Jupiter or the City of Leeds. But an Admiral Gifford is mentioned. Some other minor details are also in conflict. However, it is true that at least four of the ships involved were wrecked.

A different source, a copy of The Australian from 25 November, 1829 does note that a ship named Jupiter did crash into reefs off Cairncross Island and suffer serious damage. It also notes the wrecks of the Mermaid, Comet, and Swiftsure. The Admiral Gifford also eventually had rudder problems :o

The Australian National Shipwreck Database does not include any vessels named Jupiter either. The four wrecks mentioned in the National Maritime Museum account do have entries along with maps (Mermaid, Swiftsure, Governor Ready, Comet) pinpointing their wrecks (which are in relative proximity to each other).

Governor Ready sinking
The crew abandon a sinking Governor Ready


The ANMM's article references a 26 November 1829 article in the Sydney Gazette (and New South Wales Advertiser) (an "official publication of the government of New South Wales") which reads as follows:

Captain Nolbrow, who is well known here as an old commander, trading to our shores, arrived by the Calista. He has been singularly unfortunate, more so than we ever remember to have heard of in the instance of any surviving shipwrecked mariner. He sailed from Sydney in the Mermaid, Colonial Government cutter, for Port Raffles, which settlement, our readers are aware, the Government of the sister Colony has, by order from home, caused to be evacuated. On entering Torres' Straits, the Mermaid got a-shore and was lost. All on board saved, upon a rock. In three days the ship Swiftsure, which sailed from this port, hove in sight, and took on board Captain Nolbrow and his crew. In three days she got on shore and was wrecked, all on board saved. In a day or two the Governor Ready, also from this port, passing within sight, took the shipwrecked people onboard, and was in three days himself wrecked, but all the people saved. The ship Comet, also from this port, soon after took the whole of the collected crews of the lost ships on board, and was herself wrecked also in a day or two, but all the people saved. At last the ship Jupiter, also from this port, came in sight and taking all on board steered for Port Raffles, at the entrance of which harbour she got on shore and received so much damage that she may be said to half wrecked. There however, Captain Nolbrow found the Government brig Amity in which he embarked, and strange to say this vessel also was, as we have stated in the former part of this article, nearly wrecked in Gage's Roads.

This piece published only a few months after the event does conform just about completely with the story as related in the OP. The Jupiter is stated to have "half-wrecked" and even the Amity, "nearly wrecked".

  • 3
    The book I have says that Jupiter landed them at Port Raffles. Jupiter struck the harbour, and didn't sink, but was subsequently deemed irreparable.
    – ChrisW
    Apr 13, 2015 at 18:22
  • 5
    From The Least Successful Boat Rescue on page 125: "Seven days later the Comet sank in a sudden storm and the passengers, now accompanied by four separate crews, were rescued by the Jupiter. In all four shipwrecks not a single life was lost, but the Jupiter struck the harbour at Port Raffles and was later scuttled when found to be beyond repair."
    – ChrisW
    Apr 13, 2015 at 18:50
  • 5
    @Izkata "1730" is presumably a time-of-day (not a year), i.e. "17:30", i.e. "5:30 PM".
    – ChrisW
    Apr 13, 2015 at 19:22
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    @coleopterist The "Governor Ready" sank 18 May 1929, so there is no way it could have rescued the Merrmaid and Swiftsure crews.
    – DavePhD
    Apr 13, 2015 at 20:31
  • 4
    @user2357112 In his own answer he wrote, "2:45 PM 18 May 1829", so "1929" is a typo in this comment, and when he wrote "no way" that's because of the month, i.e. May, given that Mermaid and Swiftsure wrecked in June and July.
    – ChrisW
    Apr 14, 2015 at 9:33

Regarding these various shipwrecks, there are a number of very early reports within merely the time needed for the various eyewitnesses to reach the towns where these reports originated. There, nevertheless, does appear to be discrepancies.

The report of Nov. 26, 1829 in the SIDNEY GAZETTE seems to contradict the report in a previous edition . Is this a mistaken article or is it a different report of the event by a different witness?

We cannot say that it is the result of a gradual embellishment over time, nor can we say that it is story surfacing at a much later time. It is a version of the event that exists close to the beginning side by side with the other. Moreover, it is a version that does not seem to have been challenged in later editions of the newspaper. In fact it is the version that largely survived in Australian history (for example: IN THE EARLY DAYS; J.J. Knight, Brisbane, 1895).

History is made up not only of the official reports of the big people: Governors, Captains and officers; it includes as well the testimony of the little people: sailors, passengers and even convicts. Their input also has a right to be evaluated.

When the same newspaper, in a later edition, publishes a somewhat different account, it usually means that someone reading the prior edition wishes to correct the record, add something else, or present his or her own version of how things happened.

Most here (in this discussion) agree, at least, that after the Mermaid sank June 12/13, they were saved by the Admiral Grifford and then transferred to the Swiftsure, which also became disabled. The combined crews (along with some of the cargo) were brought by the Resource and let off at Port Raffles where they met up with Dr. Wilson, newly returned from Coupang on the Amity.

From there the Amity took Captain Nolbrow and "some of the crew" westward to Swan River on the west side of Australia, and then, aboard the Calista, eastward along the south side of Australia, to Albany and King George Sound, then on to Hobart (Tasmania) where Captain Nolbrow leaves a report of these events published by the local newspaper. Then they proceeded northward along the east side of Australia to Sidney. Some ships there, like the Amity encountered various difficulties and delays at Swan River and thus Nolbrow continues on the Calista and reportedly other crew as well.

  • 2
    Please do not make more than one answer to a question. It is much better to edit your existing answer. Please make sure you have read the help pages (under the help menu) to find out how things work here, which are a bit different from a normal forum. May 14, 2015 at 1:14
  • Please use Skeptics Chat to debate this topic. Use the comments for suggestions on how to improve the answer. Do not use the answers or the comments to post your opinions or reasoning.
    – Sklivvz
    May 14, 2015 at 7:34
  • The Jupiter's Calcutta repair trip must have been different than the Java repair trip. After the Calcutta repairs some of the Mermaid crew returning to Sidney could have been on the Jupiter as the Australian paper reports. Whether or not the Sidney paper identified correctly the place of the Jupiter accident, they knew that it happened; and if it happened north of Sidney (Cairnscross Island) and then went for repairs further north, how would they know that it happened unless it were carrying passengers to Sidney or passengers to Sidney by the northeast route passed it on their way to Sidney? May 15, 2015 at 17:12
  • I do not wish off-hand to reject your (DavePhD) chronology of Jupiter's Carinscross accident (April or May), but I would point out, that if Nolbrow knew from his going trip northward, he does not seem to have communicated it at Port Raffles, nor at Hobart, but only later by letter (presumably from Sidney). Moreover, in that letter, he does not say that the Jupiter "went" to Java (i.e. in April or May), but rather "and gone to Java", as in a recent still happening event. May 16, 2015 at 4:58
  • @RTCarleton The news about the Jupiter reached Hobart via the Calista as explained in this 10/31 article trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/4212571 in addition to the 10/30 article trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/8644632. At almost the same time, the news about the Jupiter reached Sydney via the Amity as published 10/30 here trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/36866262
    – DavePhD
    May 17, 2015 at 2:13

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