Thursday, 14 July 2011

Yamba Day 13

Unlucky for some ...

Sue and I spent most of today separated, only that we had other things to do. Not sure what she got up to this morning but by lunch she was at the Harwood Pub with the remains of her family. I joined them briefly before she went off to spend the rest of the afternoon with Mandy, raiding the local shops for bargains.

My morning started with a delightful drive to Grafton listening to a lot of old rock, most of it from the 1970's. My destination was the Lower Clarence Historical Society, in order the gather information about the tragic drowning in December 1943 of 13 Cub Scouts in the Clarence River in the short stretch between Susan Island and the Prince St Wharf. The volunteers there couldn't have been more helpful and I was able to come away with photocopies and photographs of the events and the subsequent coronial enquiry.The basic facts I knew: 13 boys aged between 8 and 10 drowned shortly after 5:25pm after the punt they were travelling on to cross the Clarence was at first inundated and then capsized. There was so much more, some of it raising questions which will never be answered and much of it reflecting the times.

On a Saturday two weeks before Christmas, 1943, the 1st Grafton Scout Troop was to have their Christmas parties, in different groupings, on Susan Island, a long, reasonably narrow island  located in the Clarence River, roughly between Grafton and South Grafton. The main group, the Boy Scouts, were engaged with the Scout Master on part of the island, whilst the younger group, the Cub Scouts were undertaking fun activities like treasure hunts with their leader, the 17 year old Charlie Penn. Penn was a Kings Scout and had won every honour possible for his age in the Scouting movement. He was highly regarded in the general community. At about 4:00pm, two Scouting friends of Penn, Rex Oxenford and Jimmy Doust, swam across the Clarence from the Prince St wharf below the Crown Hotel to Susan Island to fulfil a promise to Penn to assist in bringing the 28 Cub Scouts back across the Clarence in a punt owned by Oxenford's father's company. The larger Scouts floodboat was unavailable, having been found unseaworthy the night before. The majority of the Cubs had come across the Clarence with Penn that morning.

The punt was of wooden construction, with a shallow draft and only 16ft (4.9m) long and 3'5" (about  1m) wide at either end and slightly wider at the centre. There is a picture of it among today's photos. You might ask why then 28 Cubs and 3 Scouts were loaded under the direction of Charlie Penn for the 400m crossing into this small boat, with no propulsion but oars and with a passenger cargo of young boys, most of them with back packs on and the vast majority either could not swim or were hardly competent to tread water? You might also ask why there was no adult supervision or water floatation devices?

Oxenford suggested two trips but Penn felt confident they could make the trip as the water was calm, despite an approaching storm from the south. At first his judgement was right but once out of the lee of the wind caused by the large trees on Susan Island, the water became choppy and the strength of the wind apparent. Penn had his oarsmen, Oxenford and Doust, point the craft into the approaching waves, but the craft was sluggish under the load and its freeboard was well inside the safety margin for such a vessel. Freeboard is the distance from the water line on a boat up to the gunnel (the top of the side). It should have been 7" but survivors were later to say it was as narrow as 3". Penn ordered Doust and Oxenford into the water to get behind the boat and push with their considerable leg power.

Two things happened almost in unison. Some of the younger boys panicked at the sight of the older Scouts going over the side and moved to one side and a larger wave broke over the boat and swamped it. In the ensuing panic, the boat capsized throwing all 31 boys into the water. Bowlers at the nearby bowling green heard screams but it took a few minutes for them to realise the boys were in trouble and not skylarking but then they raised the alarm, rushing to the shore and launching any craft they could borrow or even steal. A nearby canoeist was first on the scene and was later commended for his bravery. Meanwhile, the Cubs turned to their older Scouts and splashed or dog paddled in any way they could to them, five and six clinging to them and sinking them to the channel floor. Regrettably, to save more lives they had to break free and get to the surface, where bodies were being placed on the upturned punt. Penn, Oxenford and Doust were in the water for more than hour effecting rescues and performing life saving techniques. With the rescue effort in full swing, they were finally forced from the water.

15 boys were saved but unfortunately, 13 drowned, the last of them dragged from the water with grappling hooks at 10pm that night. Charlie Penn was still in hospital when the Coroner, TH Brooke, opened his enquiry at 10am on February 1st, 1944. Rex Oxenford and Jimmy Doust had been hidden from the press in a variety of places at YambaNSW Scout official JL Murrell; many of the parents; and a Mr Alvarez, a solicitor representing the Maritime Services Board, who told the enquiry that the boat was too small to come under the jurisdiction of the Board.

The Coroner found no one person or organisation at fault. It was just a tragic accident. 13 boys died, the survivors and their parents and the rescuers and the town of Grafton were all scarred for life and no one was to blame according to an enquiry which lasted barely twenty four hours!

On Christmas Eve, almost two weeks after the accident, the City Council discussed for the first time the need to establish a community baths so that children could be taught to swim. It took more than ten years of argument before a location could finally be agreed upon.

Today, above the Clarence on the Prince St levee, a small stone memorial, no higher than a ten year old boy, looks out across the Clarence, toward Susan Island and the scene of that devastating afternoon. Their names are left on a plaque which is now hard to read because more wrangling goes on over responsibility for caring for their memory, here and at their grave sites. Its not hard to see why these things happen. Its the worst excess of the "she'll be right" attitude we so revere. 

How would we go if it happened tomorrow?


  1. Claude Orenstein15 July 2011 at 10:45

    Peter, that is a heart wrenching story. I am looking forward to your poem.
    Travel safely….

  2. Hubby & I learnt something about Grafton that we never knew, & he comes from Grafton... - Liz Kennedy


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