National Police Remembrance Day

HERO: Constable William Sharrock tragically died while trying to save others when a boat sank in the Hopkins River in Warrnambool in 1921.

HERO: Constable William Sharrock tragically died while trying to save others when a boat sank in the Hopkins River in Warrnambool in 1921.

CONSTABLE William Sharrock never got the chance to enjoy the biggest honour of his career.

The Warrnambool policeman was awarded the gold medal for bravery. But unfortunately, the act for which this recognition came, also took Constable Sharrock’s life.

William Sharrock started his working career as a labourer. He stood 5 foot 10 inches with blue eyes, brown curly hair and a fair complexion. His registration form to join the police force in August, 1901, described his general appearance as “respectable”.

The change from labourer to policeman came when Sharrock was 29 years of age. 

He was to forge a reputation as a solid policeman over the next 20 years, serving in South Melbourne and then Warrnambool.

When Constable Sharrock went to work on January 9, 1921, it seemed like a routine posting.

He was keeping order on a motor boat called The Nestor.

It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon with 80 passengers on board.

As with Sunday outings of the day, those on board were dressed for the occasion.

The women and children made up the bulk of the passenger list with the few men on board dressed in their best suits.

The Sunday cruise was to travel five miles up the Hopkins River to Jubilee Park.

But things were to soon turn horribly wrong.

Early in the boat’s journey, water started seeping on board. 

Ted Geary was the owner of the boat and made the decision to take it back to shore. But there was a snag in this plan, with the bow turning on to mud and stopping the engine.  

Reports from the day indicate passengers and crew on board The Nestor had remained calm and confident during what was considered a minor hiccup.

But this was soon to change, the mood swinging to panic due to the fact water was now gushing on board and nearly half the boat was flooded.

Sitting in the middle of the river, the boat was now rocking ferociously and people were starting to jump or be thrown into the water.

Among the mayhem, two rescue boats arrived and were quickly loaded with women and children.

In an interview with The Standard in 1998, Janet Dickson, who was a seven-year-old passenger on the boat, recalled the situation.

“I can remember my brother and I were taken to a mud bank and left there,” she recalled.

“I saw my parents as the boat went down, mummy was waving and I said to my brother we won’t see mummy and daddy again, but we did.” 

While it was a happy ending for the Dickson family, others were not so lucky.

A combination of the heavy nature of Sunday best clothing and the fact many people could not swim produced a dangerous mix.

But there was another very real danger to cope with, that being the terror of fellow passengers.

Survivors from the boat told of being grabbed by others who were under the water and struggling to stay afloat.

It was this desperation to survive that was to prove a fatal challenge to doing his job that Constable Sharrock was unable to overcome.

Once the boat started taking water, Constable Sharrock began working overtime to make sure as many passengers as possible were made safe. He saved the lives of his sister-in-law and her daughter and was seen keeping others afloat and guiding them to the now many rescue boats in the water.  

But there were many who had fallen into the water well before any help had arrived and were perilously placed. 

As he went about saving as many lives as he could, Constable Sharrock somehow found himself in the water.

It was a position he could not get himself out of and the brave lawman became one of the 10 people who drowned that fateful afternoon.

It appears it was not only Constable Sharrock’s inability to swim that led to his death.

The police journal of the day surmised he was pulled under by another drowning person who was clutching to their own slim hopes of survival.

“His (Constable Sharrock’s) body was recovered next morning floating downstream and the medical examination disclosed symptoms of death by strangulation” the report said.

Constable Sharrock’s death occurred in a tragic period for his family with his wife having died just two years before. The couple left behind five children, the youngest being just six years old when Constable Sharrock died.

Constable Sharrock was buried in an unmarked grave that overlooked the river.

A headstone was put on the grave in 1998 with Victoria Police chief commissioner Neil Comrie coming to Warrnambool to perform that duty.