Lake Macquarie History

Man overboard on Lake Macquarie – 1912

by Jeanette Campbell

The night of 4th November 1912 was crisp and clear on Lake Macquarie. The waning moon displayed a slender crescent, the Southern Cross was the defining constellation. The eight-hour day holiday in the Newcastle district was coming to an end. Many had had too much sun, too much grog and too much festivity.

Richard Duke, my husband's great uncle, had only been in the area some three months. He had journeyed south from Charters Towers in Queensland with his dad and younger siblings after his mother had passed away in July. At the age of 20 he had left his two older sisters, Margret and Hannah, and their families, back in the old home town. His brother William lived somewhere around Brisbane.

Life had been tough on the Charters Towers goldfields. The world gold price had collapsed as a European war loomed. Work prospects in the Hunter were brighter. Richard soon gained employment at Stockton Borehole Colliery conveniently close to his home in Boolaroo.

photo: phoenix

It is puzzling as to why Richard boarded the oil launch Merry Days at Speers Point wharf that holiday night, heading to Nords Wharf at the southern end of the Lake. Nords Wharf serviced the coal mine at Catherine Hill Bay on the coast. Workers were ferried down the lake and then loaded onto land transport bound for the Bay where they would stay the week before returning home on Friday night. Because of the public holiday miners were returning to work. Catherine Hill Bay mine was not owned by Richard's employer so it is unlikely that he was going to work with them.

However, at 6.45 that night Richard stepped on board along with 25 or 30 other passengers, 8 or 10 in an inebriated state. The Merry Days ran in opposition to Phoenix on weekends, presumably at a reduced ticket price.

The Phoenix, a steam ferry, was a jewel on Lake Macquarie. Built in 1903 she had replaced Maggie Johnson after she had burned to the waterline whilst moored at Cockle Creek wharf, at the top of the Lake. Phoenix had a capacity of 277 passengers on two decks and had all the mod-cons of the day including electric lights.

Matthew John Kerr, skipper of Merry Days, was, presumably, acquainted with Richard. After they left Toronto wharf, Matthew asked him to steer the launch while he quelled a drunken disturbance and collected tickets. The skipper resumed the controls as they passed Big Wangi Point and headed towards Nords Wharf.

From when Merry Days was some half a mile (800m) from the wharf Richard watched Phoenix's lights coming towards them from his vantage point on the deck. As the boats began to pass on the port side they came perilously close. Richard stood holding his breath, riveted to the spot … on impact he toppled into the water.

Merry Days' bow had ploughed into Phoenix's sponson damaging it along with some decking. Merry Days' bow was stoved in just above the waterline, her engines disabled by the force of the collision. A deckhand on Phoenix threw Richard a lifebuoy. However, he disappeared beneath the water before he could grab the device. The Merry Days skipper was nowhere to be seen. He later gave evidence that the collision had thrown him onto the engine and rendered him unconscious for several seconds.The skipper of Phoenix answered the shouts of the Merry Days' passengers, circling back, transferring them onto his ferry and bringing them to shore. Water police were unable to find Richard's body that night nor the next day. However, he was buried at Sandgate Cemetery two days later on 7th November.

At the Marine Board Enquiry on 17th December the skippers gave conflicting evidence. Matthew Kerr did not hold a licence to carry passengers and the enquiry found his version of events unconvincing. The Court established that the collision had been caused by Matthew Kerr's poor navigation. Albert Johnson, the skipper of Phoenix was praised for his assistance of the Merry Days skipper and his passengers.

It was deemed that, as Matthew Kerr was not licenced, he could not be prosecuted. The inquest handed down on 31st January 1913 found that Richard had drowned accidentally.'Dangerous navigation occasioning death' (Crimes Act 1900, Section 52B) holds a custodial sentence of up to 10 years. Was justice really served?


  • Doreen Phillips – Ferries of Lake Macquarie (2008) Published by East Lake Macquarie Historical Society Inc.
  • Newcastle Morning Herald & Miners’ Advocate – 4 Nov 1912; 5 Nov 1912; 6 Nov 1912; 15 Nov 1912; 18 Dec 1912; 19 Dec 1912; 1 Feb 1913
  • The Daily Telegraph 6 Nov 1912
  • Death certificate Richard Duke
  • Crimes Act (1900) Section 52B

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