Down the rabbit hole with McCorkindales and the tragedy of the steamer Pearl.


Monday’s task was to try to find my grandmother’s niece, Ida McCorkindale and siblings, in the newly released Commonwealth Electoral Rolls on Ancestry. I’ve looked at ERs before for her and her siblings with limited results and I was optimistic that with the wider range nation-wide she’d turn up. This time was both a win and a lose: I found Ellen Sim McCorkindale (initially Nellie) through to 1980 and the probate indexes date her death as 1981. Ida disappears around the end of the 1930s and so far I have not found her in marriage or death indexes. I also tried other subscription sites without any greater success. Brother Duncan is more confusing as there are a few possible ones including a marriage, so yet more work to do on all of them.

Next step was to have another look at Trove to see if anything new had turned up there on the family. This is when the rabbit started sprinting for the hole with me in pursuit. I came across an entry for a Mr McCorkindale drowning in Brisbane on 13 February 1896, and looked at Qld BDM online to see who he was….no entry in 1896.

One thing quickly led to another and I was soon immersed down the rabbit hole with the story of a dramatic river accident in which up to 25 people were missing or drowned, one of them Mr McCorkindale.

The essence of what happened was that the steamer Pearl was setting off with about 80 passengers, much less than its full complement to travel between Queen’s Wharf and Musgrave Wharf at South Brisbane. The river was in flood and there were eddies which the captain, an experienced seaman, said threw the boat off course so they barely avoided the Normanby, and the Pearl crossed the chains of the government steamer, the Lucinda, at which the Pearl crashed, split in two and sank.[i] Its passengers and crew quickly found themselves in the river, some being rescued quickly by the crew of the Lucinda. Others were not so fortunate and were swept away. For some time later bodies were being recovered along the length of the river. Mr McCorkindale was reported as saying to Mr Ballinger, the traffic inspector, “Goodbye, I cannot swim. Remember me to my wife”. He was not seen again and remained on the missing list throughout. When you look at the list of women among the missing, it seems likely that the heavy clothing of the time would have stacked the odds against them. While initial reports placed the missing and drowned at 25 but it has been difficult to find final numbers.

A magisterial inquiry was held a week later on 20 February 1896. One report in particular caught my attention. There had been some South Sea Islander people on board including a woman and two children, one of whom remained missing. However a Tommy Matahbelle was refused the opportunity to give evidence because he was not baptised, hence not a Christian, and therefore could not give an oath and evidence. Application for him to be allowed to provide a statement was also refused[ii]. Legal and conventional but hardly moral justice: no multi-cultural acceptance in those days.

The findings of the subsequent Marine Board enquiry were that the master of the Pearl, James Chard, displayed want of skill in navigating the vessel, and that the steamer was lost through his default. His certificate as a home trade master, and his licenses to take charge of steamers within the limits of any port, were cancelled.[iii]

While this is a sad story, significant enough to generate a telegram from the Queen and the British Prime Minister, what intrigued me was the ambiguity over the registration of the deaths. I checked the list of the missing against the Qld BDM indexes and while the uncertainty over first names made it difficult, it seems apparent that at least some of the missing may not have made it to the death registers highlighting one of the ways in which our family can cause us “brick walls”. Mr McCorkindale turned out to be Archibald McCorkindale per the inquiry reports. His death was not registered until 1922 some 26 years later. I wondered how many others were never documented. Even some of those recovered do not appear in the indexes under the names stated in the papers (eg Margaret McGhie).

1922/F6428 Archibald James McCorkindale

Initial newspaper reports listed 25 missing and dead but progressively bodies of many of the drowned were recovered. The magisterial inquiry is invaluable in providing more detail in regard to those who drowned. Those missing, and a few of those later identified, are included here:

Mr Archibald McCorkindale, late President of the Coorparoo Shire Council.

Mrs Best

Mrs Gould (possibly Emma Eliza 1896/B28991)

Mrs (Janet?) Wilson, wife of James Wilson, Russell St, South Brisbane. Ironically he could not swim, yet apparently she could as she tried to hold onto him until he struck something hard in the water. “I will stick to you Jim, I know you cannot swim”.[iv]

Mrs Nellie Harper, residing with Mr & Mrs Wilson, with her four children, cnr Grey &Russell Sts, body later found[v]. Nellie Harper, born England about 30 years old 1896/B28527. I wonder what happened to her children)

Mrs A B Renton (possibly Mary Jane 1896/B28470), Cordelia St, South Brisbane.

Mrs Pogson, Russell St South Brisbane (not on some lists –could this be Mrs Wilson?)

Mrs Kitty Matahbelle does not appear on the lists though she is mentioned in the inquiry. No registration under this surname.

Miss Ida Newman of Coorparoo (her death, under this name, is not registered)

Henry Archibald Jarman, nephew of Louisa Ellen Jarman (1896/B28534) Aged about 21, he had a lifebuoy which he handed over to his aunt saying “Here you take this and save yourself, I’ll be all right”

Mr H E Williams, Pastoral Butchering Company (registration not found)

Mr A G Williams (possibly George Alfred Foster Williams 1896/B29325)

Miss Marshall, Merton Rd

Harry Guzamai (also listed as Gurosomai/Guzomai). 1896/B29529. The bodies of the mother and another child, about 10 years old, were recovered. The mother was said to be a good swimmer.

Timothy O’Sullivan (9 years) (1896/B2856)(body recovered)

Infant child Priest

Mrs Taylor (possibly missing), an old lady, licensee of the Clarence Hotel, South Brisbane.

Hugh Kerr Colquhoun Morren (body recovered, 1896/B28535. His children Martha and her brother had been returning with their father from their mother’s funeral that afternoon. Both children survived the accident. He left a large family of young children[vi]).

If any of these names are relevant to your family it would be worth checking out the stories on this tragedy to get the full picture. So many evocative stories reminiscent of 2011’s disasters.

Back to task: if anyone knows anything more about Ida McCorkindale, her sister Ellen Sim McCorkindale, or brother Duncan McCorkindale, I’d really like to hear from you. Their parents were Duncan and Ida McCorkindale.


[i] The Pearl was recovered from the bottom of the river on 5 March The Worker 14 March 1896. Image of it apparently in The Australasian. It was apparently set to be repaired.

[ii] The Brisbane Courier, 26 February 1896.

[iii] The Argus, 16 April 1896, page 5.

[iv] Magisterial enquiry evidence, The Brisbane Courier, 21 February 1896. Also initial news reports The Brisbane Courier 14 February 1896 including reference to the Harper children.

[v] The Brisbane Courier, 21 February 1896

[vi] Sydney Morning Herald 15 February 1896.

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22 thoughts on “Down the rabbit hole with McCorkindales and the tragedy of the steamer Pearl.

  1. HI, I just found another reference to the “Pearl” disaster…PEARL DISASTER.

    ” On inquiry from the hospital we learn that the body which was found at Bribie Island on Monday last has been iden- tified by the brooch as that of Miss Maggie McGhie, aged 20. Miss McGhie was reported as missing, and it was be- lieved that she had been lost in the Pearl.”
    The Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 – 1933) (about) <Friday 28 February 1896

    I live in hope that one day I will find what happened to John Goopy (snr) who disappeared sometime after 1872 and before 1885 when his wife was receiving a widow's payment. Any mass disappearances reignite my search… They lived in Qld.

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    • Thanks Crissouli. Poor Maggie McGhie and her sister apparently had no family in the colony….perhaps why her death wasn’t registered. In a macabre way it’s interesting how far the body travelled before being found.
      Like you I live in hope of finding a missing ancestor…not sure if he’s done a runner or died somehow/somewhere but un-noted. Good luck with the hunt for John Goopy…

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    • Crissouli, your Blogger profile does not include an email address, and if there is one on your blog it is not easy to find. I wanted to let you know that I have found references to a John GOOPY from 1879 to 1883. Contact me at the address shown in the sidebar on http://genfamilies.blogspot.com/. I don’t want to put it here in case it generates spam.

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      • Hi Judy, I’ve put your message into an email to Crissouli. She can contact you via your blog page email. Fingers crossed it helps solve the mystery. Thanks!!!

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    • Wow, how interesting Judy. Just shows how information connects up.It was a real tragedy wasn’t it? Just as well I’m not in Brisbane or I’d feel compelled to go and have a look at some…more rabbit holes.

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  2. Thanks for sharing this “rabbit hole” discovery. What a tragedy! It is interesting how an inquiry was appointed to investigate the disaster–and that the pilot’s skills were “wanting.” Some things don’t change much of the years. The words would be different, but the findings would be similar for many transportation-related accidents today.

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    • I agree Sheryl..the more papers you read, the more you realise the world isn’t all that different. The only thing is that now the inquiry would take twice as long, cost twice as much and not have a conclusion for much longer.

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  3. I am researching the O’Sullivan Family tree and trying to find what happened to Timothy O’Sullivan’s younger brother Robert Joseph Stephen O’Sullivan, found him still living in the Brisbane area in 1919 but cannot get any trace after that – can anybody help

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    • I can see him on the Qld marriage list in 1914, marrying Elizabeth Boyes in Brisbane on 21 April 1914 and then at Christmas Creek near Beaudesert in the 1919 electoral rolls (but no Elizabeth). If you are in Brisbane you could visit the Archives where they have the original electoral rolls which should have annotations as to where he went from his 1919 address. I guess you’ve already searched Trove etc. Good luck with the search, perhaps someone will come across your comment and if so I will pass their details on, with their permission. Of course he may have dropped the Stephen on further records and moved interstate -hard to know.

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      • Robert Joseph Stephen O’Sullivan
        Obtained his mother’s death cert. Mary Elizabeth O’Sullivan (Nee Buckley) which
        indicates RJS O’S died between 1919 and 1932, still cannot get a trace have checked NSW and Vic records to no avail. Still hoping sommebody will come up with some news of this O’S. Cheers

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      • It’s never easy finding those “common names” like O’Sullivan, or O’Brien. Certainly having left a comment here it might help if someone else starts searching too. You could try tracking him through the electoral rolls if you know where they lived in 1919, for example. On the originals, not the ones digitised I don’t think, there are often annotations like “deceased” when they are taken off the rolls. You could also check newspapers and inquests -I’ve found that with inquests they somehow didn’t always make it into the death registration process. There are also quite a few cemetery burial registers online which might be worth hunting through. Good luck!

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  4. i was just thinking of my grandfather, william morren…from what i
    understand he would have been young. he had an older brother
    i did not know he had a sister. for whatever reason i looked up
    his fathers name and ferry disaster and all this info popped.
    greetings from canada

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    • Further to my last comment John, I had a look at NSW (and other stuff). There is a Robert O’Sullivan dying in Waratah district (apparently Newcastle area), in 1919, with parents Patrick and Mary which fits with your bloke. A transcription agent will cost you less if you want to get that certificate -it might be your best chance and at least you’d eliminate him. He seems to have left his wife but doesn’t appear in the online Qld divorce indexes which don’t go up that far in date (not enough time probably if he did die in 1919) and not in NSW either. I’d give the certificate a go I reckon but if you can get to the archives in Brisbane then it would be worth seeing what’s written against that 1919 electoral roll entry.

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      • Cassmob
        Thanks for your tip,got Joy Murrin to do a search and yes it is the man I am looking for who died at Warath NSW, found he is buried in the RC section of Sandgate Qld Cemetery.Once again thanks John Shepherd

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  5. Hello,
    I found your article an interesting read especially from the perspective of the victims. My Great great grandfather was Capitan James Chard, his daughter Annie was my great grandmother. It was a terrible tragedy, even to this day. Its not something that my family spoke about, and I heard about it only recently after doing some searching myself. I am sure it would have been something James carried with him for the rest of his days until he passed away. Thanks Clayton Baker.

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    • Thanks for visiting and commenting Clayton. I can imagine it would have been a devastating event in the family’s life and not surprising it wasn’t spoken of. They held a commemoration last year -I think the info is in my my comments. Cheers Pauleen

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