Shipwreck hero William Ferrier faced local animosity

Warrnambool’s Laurence Ferrier has been researching his uncle William Ferrier and the wreck of the La Bella. Picture: ROB GUNSTONE

Warrnambool’s Laurence Ferrier has been researching his uncle William Ferrier and the wreck of the La Bella. Picture: ROB GUNSTONE

MUCH has been written about William John Ferrier who became a national and international hero after a daring rescue in Warrnambool’s Lady Bay in 1905. But his nephew Laurie had added a fresh touch of intrigue.

He believes his uncle, who saved the La Bella captain and a seaman and was instrumental in saving another seaman from the wrecked ship, left his home town because of animosity by some residents after he was given numerous bravery awards.

“In my opinion he left Warrnambool because of animosity that developed and because he wanted to start a new life with better opportunities in the fishing industry for his family,” Laurence Ferrier told The Standard.

“Some people were upset that awards were not given to others involved in the rescue efforts.

“He got more recognition from outside than from within his own community.”

On November 10 next year it will be 110 years since the barquentine La Bella was wrecked when she struck a reef south of the breakwater in heavy seas.

Plans are afoot to have remembrance ceremonies in Warrnambool, Rosebud and Queenscliff where William’s sole surviving child, Lew, lives.

Seven seamen lost their lives in the tragedy and the captain was found guilty on two charges and his certificate suspended for 12 months.

A whaleboat crew and a subsequent volunteer lifeboat crew were unable to get close to the stricken vessel because of heavy seas.

However, 24-year-old Ferrier, with one arm numbed by poison, rowed a dinghy with one oar to perform the rescue mission.

He first plucked the captain from the ocean and, after landing him at the breakwater, returned to haul a seaman into the dinghy and helped another into the lifeboat after cutting him free from rope lashing.

“Ferrier quickly dashed through the surf right under the stern of the vessel, cut the man free and drew him into the dinghy, after nearly being swamped, the dinghy was drawn to the lifeboat by the aid of a line,” said one summary of the events.

William was awarded a Royal Humane Society medal and certificate plus a Royal Life Saving Society certificate.

He was also guest of the governors of Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia.

It has been reported that he received a congratulatory letter from the King, but Laurence Ferrier can find no evidence of such a letter. There was even a special postcard printed with his photograph and a caption “William Ferrier, the brave fisherman — the hero of the La Bella”.

An account in the Victorian Education Department’s school paper said “letter, telegrams and gifts for him came pouring in from all quarters of Australia — governors, premiers, members of Parliament and the general public vying with one another to do him honour”.

He declined numerous invitations to appear at theatres and music halls, and later moved to Rosebud for a role as lighthouse keeper. He then moved to Queenscliff where he died in 1937 at the age of 57.

Unfortunately the Ferrier bravery medal disappeared from a collection at Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village some years ago and was never recovered. 

Laurence, a retired insurance salesman, became an unlikely historian after glancing through Warrnambool cemetery records in 2002 and finding numerous mentions of family members.

He now has 260 CDs storing information about the Ferriers and an extensive lineage of his mother (Mary Chalmers Swanson Grey) way back to 330BC.

William and Laurence’s father John lived in South Warrnambool with their nine siblings.

According to Laurence, William was a labourer working on the breakwater. 

“I’m led to believe that on the night La Bella hit the reef the normal lifeboat crew was away from Warrnambool and they had to hastily get another crew of volunteers,” he said.

“Two attempts were made to fire a rocket rope to the ship, but that didn’t work.

“When they put the lifeboat out the sea was too rough to get close and there was timber all over the place.

“There was only one rowlock on the dinghy used by William, but that wasn’t unusual because they were very skilful at sculling with one oar.

“I don’t know why his arm was poisoned — maybe it was a bite or an infection.”

A public meeting was held in the Warrnambool Town Hall during which the mayor handed him cheques which included donations from the community, an appeal by The Argus newspaper and another private appeal. He was also presented with a medal from Glenelg Dinghy Club.

Mr Ferrier responded in a thank you speech: “I only tried to do my duty, and I am sure that every man present on that morning of the week would have done as much as I did had the opportunity come to him. I had the opportunity and I took it, thinking of nothing but the saving of lives in peril”.

The Royal Humane Society also sent a letter of commendation to the lifeboat crew and superintendent and the local policeman Constable Trainer was given a special mention in The Standard.

After moving to Queenscliff, William returned to Warrnambool annually for the May Racing Carnival.

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