One of the search regions for the ancient wreck is known as the 'Osburne Site". It is based
on accounts supplied over a century ago by Richard Osburne, the foremost editor of the
Osburne recorded that he had seen the old wreck on several occasions when riding from
Warrnambool to Port Fairy in the late 1840's. Osburne first wrote of the "Mahogany Ship'
in his "HISTORY OF WARRNAMBOOL" (published 1887)(1).
In his publication Osburne copied the 1876 'Mason Account'(by John Mason,his confirmed
sighting of the wreck in 1846^). Osburne then wrote that he remembered the wreck
"...high in the hummocks between Belfast and Warrnambool in 1847 or 1848,but it was
much nearer Warrnambool than Belfast - in fact only two or three miles from the former
place - to the west of the big hummock which was supposed to fill Warrnambool Bay with
drift sand washed by the Merri River, until the cutting was made".
Osburne went on to say that the wreck may have been one of the early Spanish or Portugese
explorers, and a thorough search should be organised.He included reference to the old
rapier found in the Moyne river and alluded to it's possible connection with the old
In 1890 the old wreck was brought to national attention when a public search was funded
to locate it's whereabouts. Osburne again wrote of his sighting of the wreck:
June 25 1890.To the Editor of the Gazette
Sir:- The exciting yarn published in the Warragul paper giving "Sandy Allen's"
reminiscences repecting the so-called Spanish galleon, is so thoroughly at variance
with the actual facts, that I cannot remain silent on the matter. The narrator must
be a veritable Rip Van Winkle, for he says that he saw this foreign ship come ashore,
and after the captain had failed to get the doubloons, he tried, but could not get
at them.!Sandy Allan is confounding the wreck with the 'Sir John Byng' which he and
his family broke up on the Port Fairy beach, for the sake of the copper bolts, in 1870
or 1871.The old wreck was, in fact, miles away from the Port Fairy beach, and only
about four miles from Warrnambool.In the years 1847 and 1848 I have often seen the
wreck and I regret to say [for the enthusiasm of the explorers] I do not believe she
was a foreign ship at all.
(signed)R.Osburne. Author History of Warrnambool
But a month previous Osburne had written a letter about his sightings of the ship; his
indecision in regard to the ship's origins is evident.He promotes the 'ancient ship
of discovery' theory but states that he had no idea of such a possibility at the
times he saw the wreck.As he pointed out he would have examined the wreck more carefully
if he had thought it an ancient wreck. Osburne wrote under his usual guise* of 'Melbourne
Correspondent' for the Port Fairy Gazette: he used the opportunity to plug his own
book and also added that he had seen the wreck up until 1850 ( a fact not previously stated
in his accounts).
May 6th 1890. The old residents of Port Fairy should well remember the wreck between
Warrnambool and Armstrong's Bay, and which is now becoming of so much interest, as the
ancient vessel is supposed to be the remains of one of the early navigators.
It is a very remarkable thing, however, that although this wreck was seen and talked
about in 1836, fifty-four years ago, still no real examination has been made.
Some particulars will be found in Osburne's History of Warrnambool, p.p 143 & 144.
If the ornamental Spanish dagger found some years ago in the Moyne has an connection
with this wreck, and if the ship's timbers are mahogany, everything points to the
probability of the vessel belonging to an exploring squadron.
Mr Archibald, the well-known and earnest curator of the Warrnambool Museum, is actively
pushing matters to a point, and any old colonist and resident in the Western district
should lend a helping hand. What if some valuable documents or maps, or even treasure,
be found buried under the yellow sands. The directions for the locality are - east of
Gorman's lane and along the beach until you bring the point of land where the old
iron church stood in line with the highest point of Tower Hill land.
I saw the wreck on the hummocks in 1847, 1848 and up to 1850, but of course never
thought she was of Spanish or Portuguese origin, or I would soon have carefully examined
her. Mr John Mason of your town, has also seen her and described her.
In his June 1890 letter to the Gazette Osburne stated that Sandy Allen's 'tall tales'
had prompted him to break his silence but just three months earlier he had supplied
Joseph Archibald* with a sketch of the wreck location: "I have also received a
letter from Mr.R.Osborne, author of The History of Warrnambool, enclosing a rough sketch
of the position of the wreck."
Osburne had been in correspondence with Archibald from as early as February of 1890.
In a letter to Archibald dated 19th February Osborne wrote "My Dear Archibald...
in 1847 and 1848 I have often crossed the Merri on horseback (although sometimes the
quicksand in the river below the Big Hummock were very dangerous to both horse and
rider) and then kept on as much as I could on the beach. The beach was only hard when
you got to Armstrongs Bay and then kept on so right to Port Fairy. It is now some
forty three years ago since I first saw the wreck. I thought then she was about a 50 or
60 ton vessel, and that was a fair size in the Spanish and Portuguese expedition days.
Of course I then knew nothing about the timbers, whether mahogany or cedar, or of the
probably connection with early exploration, or you may be sure I would have made a close
search. When I first saw the wreck it was behind a large hummock, and perhaps was 300
or 400 years off the ocean which ceaselessly beat upon the shore. The place was wild
and unmarkable, as far as land marks go, so that when I went again there was not the
slightest sign. You know how in one night all will change the wild hummocks between
the back of Warrnambool and Gorman's Lane...of course the wreck was not so plain as
the sketch shows, but when I saw it you could have defined the outline. I thought it
looked like a large lighter, but at that time I took very little interest.
I have several times during the past forty years - although never systematically looked
for the wreck, but saw nothing. Yet that would not easily discourage me in searching or
in expectation. One good sou wester or even easterly gale will completely metamorphise
the beach front, and I don't despair yet in seeing either the old Mynheer or the
Spanish Cavellero exhumed from his 300 year burial on the Western Coast of Victoria".
In November of 1890 Osburne wrote again to the Gazette:"I have read Mr John Mason's
letter in the "Australasian" relating to the ancient wreck on the Port Fairy beach, with
great interest. I can personally bear out every word he says- for in the years 1847-48
I frequently saw the wreck whilst riding from Warrnambool to Belfast.I always regarded the
remains as those of an old coaster, and there was nothing to suggest a spanish galleon or
If Richard Osburne saw the Mahogany Ship in 1847 it must have been late in that year. He
claimed that in 1846 he was at Sydney where he worked as a journalist for the 'Colonist;
prior to that he had been apprenticed at the Patriot in Melbourne from 1839**.
Osburne wrote that he came to Warrnambool towards the close of 1847 and that he came by
the Ellen and Elizabeth.Osburne had family in Warrnambool: his brothers-in-law
(Chisholm and Lilly)were both involved in the foremost settlement of Warrnambool, and
Osburne worked for Lilly for a short period of time as a clerk, in 1847 and 1848.
It was probably whilst in that capacity that he had occasion to travel between Warrnambool
and Port Fairy, during which time he claimed to have seen the old wreck in the dunes.
Osburne dubbed himself "The Father of the Western Press". He was born in 1825 in New
South Wales, the son of William Osburne and Mary McLeod. Richard was said to have
been educated at the King's School in Sydney by his uncle (George Lilly). His schoolmate
there was William Beaver,who also became an apprentice journalist at the 'Patriot' (a
year prior to Osburne).Both men ended up in the Warrnambool region by 1850.
Richard started up the Warrnambool Examiner in 1851 with John Wilkinson (whose
father was the editor and proprietor of the Portland Guardian. Wilkinson 'joined
the exodus who left at the outbreak of the gold discoveries in the early 1850's and
Osburne was left to manage the paper. He soon after 'stowed his press' and went to
Castlemaine to join his brother in law John Chisholm (who ran a store at the goldfields).
In 1853 Osburne returned to Warrnambool and resumed editing the Examiner. In 1854
he married Elizabeth Plummer and they raised their children in Warrnambool. In 1864 Osburne
bought the copyright of the Belfast Gazette and shortly after sold it to his nephew
G.W.Osburne (who ran the magazine with Thos.Smith).
In 1867 Osburne leased the Examiner to Fairfax & Laurie for five years. At the termination
of the lease in 1872, and being unable to agree with Osburne on the terms of renewal the
two men started up the Warrnambool Standard.Whilst the two papers were fighting to obtain
patronage a third paper (the Guardian)entered the fray. Osburne eventually sold his
press equipment to the Guardian which collapsed a short time after. Osburne then
leased the equipment back but could not generate enough support for the Examinerto be
In 1882 Osburne left Warrnambool with his family for St Kilda. He continued his interest
local affairs and wrote as a Melbourne correspondent for the Warrnambool and Port Fairy
In 1886 he returned to the district and based himself at the 'Criterion Hotel'while
collecting material for his "History of Warrnambool".
In 1888 Richard's wife died at Malvern and Richard himself passed away in January of
Though the origins of thewreck in dunes continue to be debated Osburne's sighting is
generally accepted as one of the few credible accounts that should be taken seriously
Some Brief Facts on the Mahogany Ship
prior to 1884 the ship was locally referred to as "the old wreck".
The wreck was already covered in sand by 1843 when it was first seen (1836 is the
year usually given that the wreck as first seen, but research by the author refutes
those stories. The 1843 sighting by Captain Mills is the first reliable account
of the wreck).
In 1859 Henry Kingsley published "The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn".
(In the book his character 'Dr Mulhaus' told of an ancient ship wrecked on Australian
shores. Kingsley's footnotes recorded that such a ship was to be seen east of Port
Fairy: Richard Osburne wrote that the Kingsley meant the Maneroo district.)
This fictional story was eventually to be used as evidence that an ancient ship of
discovery was wrecked between Port Fairy and Warrnambool.
IN 1884 a journalist (suggested as being 'too fond of Johnny Walker') was responsible
for promoting the old wreck as 'The Mahogany Ship'.
Prior to 1890 there were over half a dozen organised searches undertaken to locate
the whereabouts of the wreck.Financial rewards prompted several of the searches.
By 1890 there were some fifty people who claimed to have either seen the old wreck,
or claimed to be able to provide evidence of the wreck from someone who had seen it.
(Of these, there are only four reliable accounts, and only two of these were ever
verified by others).They placed the vessel variously on the beach,in the dunes or
in the ocean.Accordingly it was said to have been burnt, plundered or had wood taken it.
It was said to have had had a saddle hung on it,to have been used as a marker for
some youth's playground or that it was made into rulers and matchboxes.
It has been variously estimated between 50 to 300 tons, and described romantically
as a ancient ship of discovery, or as an old sealing lighter left from the colonial
^: Mason's dates variously add up to 1846 and 1847.
*:Osburne had been acting as a Melbourne based correspondent for the Port Fairy Gazette
for some time: he had previously written for the Warrnambool Standard but after they
refused to publish a letter of his in regard to a private dispute he became infuriated
and instead began to write for the Gazette.(Port Fairy Gazette, April 22 1890).
**:Osburne stated that he was apprenticed in 1839, but in another article (BG 1884) the
year given was 1840. In the article it was stated that William Beaver was the 1839
apprentice for Fawkner: Beaver later came to Port Fairy in 1850.The two men were said
to have grown up together in Sydney, that they were both educated at the King's School
in Sydney by Osburne's uncle, George Lilly.
(1).Osburne, Richard, History of Warrnambool 1887.pps 143-144
About The Author
Joan Fawcett is a local history researcher who is currently writing Pioneer Speake
(an account of the European discovery and settlement of Port Fairy and Tower Hill).She
also has one of the largest private collections in relation to the Mahogany Ship.
Joan's research had led to a possible identification of the old wreck in the dunes which
supports her belief that the vessel is not an ancient ship of discovery.
Joan has spent nearly seventeen years researching local history and is currently preparing
her work for publication.Her work is self funded.
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