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.