The disappearance of the motor launch ‘Nerita’ in Moreton Bay is known as one of Ipswich’s worst civil disasters . For those of you who are not familiar with this tragic event in Ipswich’s history, the fateful voyage of the 45 foot motor boat ‘Nerita’ at 2pm on the afternoon of Saturday the 10th of June, 1939, resulted in the loss of twelve lives, many of whom were local Ipswich identities. The twelve men aboard the ‘Nerita’ left Breakfast Creek, Brisbane and were setting out on a Snapper fishing trip to Cape Moreton and Caloundra and were due to return home on Monday the 12th of June. There were several well-known Ipswich identities present for the special fishing trip including Harry Biltoft who was the owner of the Palais Royal Hotel, Jack Laister who was an Ipswich building contractor, John Reddan who was a local grocer and member of the Ipswich Vice Regal Band, Andrew Stirling a local Ipswich miner, W. Stacey an Ipswich plumber and local Brisbane resident and the Captain and owner of the boat, Edwin Carey who was a reliable boat operator and well-known fisherman in the area at the time.
After ‘Nerita’ departed from its moorings on the day of the three day trip it was spotted on Saturday evening in Moreton Bay. However, by Wednesday the following week, two days after it was due to arrive home, the boat had still not returned and no communication had been received from those aboard. Water police were quickly dispatched to the last place in which the boat was seen, in Moreton Bay, and the Fortitude Valley Police began a land investigation to determine if the boat had been seen anywhere along the Queensland coastline. Relatives of those aboard and local residents of the Ipswich and Brisbane area assisted with the search by hiring boats and the local flying school and the Royal Australian Air Force base at Archerfield also allowed pilots to use light aircraft and bomber planes to search by air for the boat, which was thought to be lost at sea. Extensive searches along the east Australian coastline were conducted and water police from Gladstone to Coffs Harbour all assisted, however after several days searching no trace of the ‘Nerita was found.
Throughout the hunt to find the motor launch various reports were made by coastal residents and several plausible scenarios regarding the boats disappearance were provided. Some say that the boat may never in fact left Moreton Bay, however this was not likely as it was spotted just off the Queensland coast heading towards Caloundra a short while after launching. Others also suggested that the current and swell at the time may have caused the boat to be swept off course or to be wrecked and left to float in open water somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. Other reports made by fellow boat owners on the water at the time say that they saw on several occasions a phosphorescent object in the water with their spotlights, however when they managed to get closer to the object it appeared to be beneath the surface of the water and could not be seen without the aid of a light. Some other scenarios proposed by local yachtsmen of the time were that the boat may have exploded at sea or that a large whale may have wrecked or capsized the boat in the Moreton Bay region.
On the 19th of July, 1939 a dinghy from the ‘Nerita’ was finally found washed up on a beach near Caloundra by a local pilot assisting with the search. It had the distinctive markings and ropes found previously on ‘Nerita’s’, and owing to the position of several ropes on the outside of the dinghy, it was believed that the crew may have made an attempt to make their way ashore but were thwarted by large swells and currents in the waters at the time. After an extensive investigation experts concluded that it was most likely a fire or a large explosion which caused the ‘Nerita’ to be abandoned via the dinghy. More searches were undertaken by air after the life boat was found and additional wreckage believed to be from ‘Nerita’ was seen close to the site where the dinghy was discovered. However, the bodies of the twelve men on board were never recovered. Shortly after efforts to recover the boat came a halt, the Ipswich community held a remembrance service at the Wintergarden Theatre for those lives lost at sea. Relatives, workmates and friends of those aboard the ‘Nerita’ laid flowers and wreaths and sang hymns including ‘Abide with me’. A minute silence was also observed.
In March 1940 the community of Ipswich established a Nerita Memorial fund which was contributed to by residents in and around the Ipswich area. By April of 1940 the community had donated over 100 pounds to be used to build and erect a set of memorial gates at the entry to the Ipswich Showgrounds in memory of those twelve lives lost. On Sunday afternoon on the 11th of May 1940, the gates were officially unveiled by Mayor J.C. Minnis. Many people attended the memorial service and unveiling and the Ipswich Vice Regal Band played Kipling’s ‘Recessional’. The gates that were unveiled were simple in appearance however they spoke volumes to the people of Ipswich and the relatives who were left behind by this tragic turn of events. The two plaques on the gates give a brief outline of the Nerita disaster and list the names of the 12 men who lost their lives in what is today said to be one of the worst Ipswich disasters since the Box Flat Mine explosion. The gates still remain in place at the original entrance to the Ipswich Showgrounds. However, as this entrance is no longer used they are rarely seen by the residents of Ipswich, and the disaster itself is barely remembered by the town. But let us hope that Ipswich will always remember this unfortunate event and the lives of those who were lost.
Information taken from: “Ipswich Heritage Study”; Queensland Times 05/04/1940; Queensland Times 23/06/1986; Queensland Times 03/07/1939; Queensland Times 12/05/1940; Queensland Times 19/06/1939; Queensland Times 20/06/1939; Queensland Times 16/06/1939; Queensland Times 14/06/1939