In 1862, an iron paddle steamer called the Prince of Wales set off from Sydney for Brisbane with 23 people on board and a full cargo of horses, rum, ale, brandy, wine, tobacco and cigars.
The ship was modern for its time and had only been in service a few months, but its voyage up the coast proved to be its last.
After passing inside a reef off Crowdy Bay, on the NSW Mid North Coast, the Prince of Wales hit a rock off Perpendicular Point and started taking on water.
The vessel was beached at nearby Dunbogan and the passengers were landed safely in calm seas.
At that point, according to the Camden Haven Historical Society’s Phillip Bowman, a message was sent for help.
“They had to ride the horses back to Harrington and they got the message out that way,” he said.
The next day another iron paddle steamer, the Diamantina, was sent from the Manning River to rescue the passengers and crew.
By that time the sea had risen and the Prince of Wales was found wrecked on the beach.
A boat was sent ashore from the Diamantina, but while it was returning through the surf it capsized.
Two of its crew, along with the engineer of the Prince of Wales, James Stuart, were drowned.
“The steamer literally sank in three metres of water,” Mr Bowman said.
Rare mound grave becomes permanent burial
The three men were buried in a shallow mound grave near the beach at Dunbogan.
Mr Bowman said the initial plan was to move the bodies north to the Port Macquarie colony.
“When the sailors died they just scraped out a little bit of the earth and put them in with the intention of taking them up to Port Macquarie in a couple of days’ time,” he said.
“Well, that never happened.
“They then covered them with a bit more soil – because they obviously smelt a bit, as they had only just covered them – and so it grew and grew and grew, and we now stand on a very rare mound grave.
“This mound grave is the only one in Australia that I know of for Europeans.
“These were probably the first graves in our area for Europeans … people were virtually not living here in the Camden Haven at that stage.”
A few years later, in 1868, Francis Williams, the wife of one of the Dunbogan pilot house keepers, was also buried at the site.
‘We need to remember them’
The burial site now sits in an inconspicuous, scrubby area near an oyster shed.
Over the years the site, which is also now well back from the water’s edge, has become run down.
During the 1970s a concrete slab and metal fencing was added to the site, but that has broken down.
The Camden Haven Historical Society and local council are now planning to restore the site and bring to life to some of the region’s history via informative signage.
“It’s our history we need to remember the people who were here before us and tell their stories,” the society’s Diane Westerhuis said.
“It’s a way of remembering them and honouring them, when they die in extreme circumstances like these sailors did, trying to rescue others.”
The Port Macquarie Hastings Council said planning for the restoration was underway.
“Council’s Heritage Consultant will be undertaking a full appraisal of the site to determine the extent of repairs required in an endeavour to reinstate the gravesite into a ‘known former condition’ as recorded by historical photographs,” a spokesperson said.
‘Much more to tell’
Ms Westerhuis said she hoped other colourful historical tales from the Camden Haven region would also be highlighted over time.
“We hear a lot about Port Macquarie because it’s a convict area, but little is told about the ordinary folk who came here trying to earn a living,” she said.
“Some people came to the area and collected oysters and they bagged them and sent them to Sydney as a way of earning a living.
“Timber was also a big industry.”
She said soldiers’ huts were also dotted throughout the region.
“There were guards’ huts — soldiers were sent here to prevent any convicts escaping from Port Macquarie and travelling south,” she said.
“The convicts sent to Port Macquarie were seen to be very dangerous as it was a place of secondary punishment … it’s a fairly dark history.