Some Mellish Reef History

It’s been a busy few months for me since we returned from Mellish Reef. The VK9MT story has appeared in various amateur radio magazines, so I won’t repeat it here. When researching some history related to Mellish Reef, I came across a few interesting facts which haven’t made it into amateur radio websites commenting on this entity, so here is a little bit of Mellish history.

Mellish Reef was discovered by Capt. Abraham Bristow in the whaler Thames, April 5th, 1812 (A Directory for the Navigation of the South Pacific Ocean, A. G. Findlay, London, 1877): “Highest part about 8 ft above water… Many boobies…”. Of interest to some of the VK9MT team, Bristow also discovered the Auckland Islands (several of us sailed close to the Auckland islands on our way down to Campbell Island in 2012). As can be seen below, Herald’s Beacon (the above-water part of Mellish Reef) is still today just a small pile of coral rubble rising a few feet above the water.

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Herald’s Beacon islet, Mellish Reef.

As in Bristow’s day, there are still many Boobies nesting on the island.

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Masked Booby, Mellish Reef

The Thames was captured from the Spanish prior to 1805, and owned by W. Mellish and Co. Originally 300 tons, she was lengthened and armed in 1811 when Bristow took command. At that time, she was issued with a “letter of marque”. (Ships Employed in the South Sea Whale Fishery from Britain: 1775-1815, J. M. Clayton, Belforts, England, 2014), i.e. a license to chase the enemy (the French and Americans!), a privateer. Mellish Reef was named after the family and company of the owners. W. Mellish and Co. was variously active in whaling, shipbuilding and victualling from the latter part of the 18th century through to around 1834 when the younger William Mellish died. (‘A Trade so Uncontrollably Uncertain’ A Study of the English Southern Whale Fishery from 1815 to 1860; Dale Chatwin, MA Thesis, Australian National University, 1996). The British Southern Whale Fishery website hosted by the University of Hull is a rich source of information on whaling voyages and voyagers of this period.

So what has happened at Mellish Reef since its discovery? Since it offers little or nothing which could be exploited commercially, the answer appears to be “nothing much”. It has, however, been the scene of several shipwrecks:

Portrait_of_Captain_Sir_Henry_Mangles_Denham_by_Charles_Baugniet,_1849

Sir Henry Denham, Captain of the Herald

Mid-August 1856, wreck of the French steam frigate Duroc. Passengers and crew landed safely on a sandbank and three boats carrying thirty-three persons set out for Cape Tribulation (Aus). The thirty-one left on the sandbank with four months provisions eventually constructed a boat and reached Timor within 28 days. Cannon and fittings were found in 1977. (http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast?a=d&d=NENZC18571031.2.13). A few years later, H. M. S. Herald visited Mellish, and her captain, Henry Denham (photo) ordered a beacon to be constructed upon the only above-water land, so that in the future vessels would be able to better see the reef. The beacon was a tripod-like structure, made from the remains of the Duroc. Thus, the islet at Mellish Reef is called Herald’s Beacon. Denham and the crew of the Herald were responsible for charting much of the Coral Sea.

8 March 1923: Wreck of he steam ship, Mindini, 2065 tons. Struck Mellish Reef when bound from Tulagi to Brisbane. The passengers and crew abandoned her and remained on a small islet until SS Nauru Chief took them off. Interesting to note that from the newspaper clipping, it appears that Captain Clarke of the Defiance was aboard the Mindini, the Defiance having sunk and her crew having been rescued by the Mindini. Only to then ground on Mellish Reef… some folks have all the luck! (http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/1883204)

Mindini wreck

Shipwreck, 20 May 1962: Wreck of the fishing vessel Kiaho Maru, 230 tons. Crew of 28 rescued by the Norwegian freighter Holthill.

None of these wrecks are visible today above the water from Herald’s Beacon islet.

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