Royal Charter gold

by Kate C
Publish date
14 September 2011
Comments (5)

When Natural Sciences Collection Manager Dermot Henry heard a radio report about efforts to salvage gold from the Royal Charter shipwreck, the story rang a bell. "I had recollections of seeing a little gold specimen that had come from a shipwreck." Sure enough, in the Geology Collection he located a small nugget with a curious label explaining that it was a survivor of the Royal Charter, which was lost off the coast of Wales in 1859. The typed label probably accompanied the nugget on display at the former Industry and Technology Museum. It reads in part:

One of the passengers had a part of his property in a belt round his waist, and in swimming ashore was dashed against the rocks and the belt burst where this was picked up but his life was saved after being three times washed back into the sea off the rock. Name of above passenger W. J. Ferris.

The ship was just three hours from its destination in Liverpool when a terrible storm drove it onto rocks. Carrying over four hundred people and gold worth millions in today's money, the loss was a terrible one for Australia and England. Many of the passengers were returning home after striking it rich in the central Victorian goldfields. Just a handful of people survived including the man on the label William J. Ferris, a Ballarat shopkeeper.

WJ Ferris gold nugget The gold nugget that survived the Royal Charter shipwreck. It is 17mm long and weighs about 4g.
Source: Museum Victoria

Dermot tracked the specimen back to a donation to the Public Library, Melbourne, from Mr Gordon Thomson, reported in the Argus in 1874. "We don't know how Thompson ended up with the gold," says Dermot. The report says that the two men met in Ireland but the nature of their transaction is not recorded.

Thomson himself was quite a character with a habit of collecting curious things. Irish-born into a wealthy family, he spent much of his life travelling the world and amassing ethnographic objects. His "very fine mansion" in Belfast called 'Bedeque-house' held "rich stores of curiosities and relics gathered from many lands." Among the relics were at least two treasures from Victorian history from his first visit to Melbourne in 1835, when the city was in its wattle-and-daub infancy. There he befriended William Buckley, who absconded from imprisonment to live with the Aboriginal people of Port Phillip Bay for more than 20 years. Buckley gave Thomson a greenstone axe-head that had "passed 20 years of its life of usefulness in Buckley's belt." The axe head and the Royal Charter gold specimen ended up in the Belfast museum along with hundreds of other objects Thomson collected on his travels.

When Thomson decided to return to Melbourne to live, he requested that the Belfast museum return the colonial objects, believing that they rightly belonged in their home country. Thus, in 1874, they travelled back over the oceans and were deposited in Melbourne public collections. We still have the gold but Buckley's axe has been missing for many years, its whereabouts unknown. Thomson built another 'Bedeque-house' in Dudley Street, West Melbourne. His 1886 obituary mourned the "death of one of the oldest Melbourne residents."


'Gold rush ship yields its treasures' - The Age, 18 July 2011

Report of Thomson's donations, The Argus, 23 Octopber 1874

Thomson's obituary, 'Death of one of Melbourne's Oldest Residents' - The Argus, 8 Jun 1886

William Buckley on Australian Biography


Further reading:

Winifred Glover, In the Wake of Captain Cook: The Travels of Gordon Augustus Thomson (1799 - 1886) Ulster Historical Foundation, 1993

Comments (5)

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Kate C 16 September, 2011 10:45

Another interesting snippet: the State Library of Victoria has a portrait of Thomson painted in 1884 by Thomas Flintoff. Poor Flintoff came to a sticky end in 1891 when he accidentally drank some ammonia liniment, mistaking it for cough mixture.

Richard G 20 September, 2011 08:07
My great-great grandfather Andrew Cowie was second mate on the Royal Charter and perished in the disaster, apparently trying to organise a lifeboat to take off passengers. His wife took my great grandmother, then a baby, from Glasgow to the site of the tragedy to try to learn of his fate.
Lucy 20 September, 2011 14:47
What a fascinating story!
Jen 23 September, 2011 10:30
Great story, and have now fixed up the obituary on Trove - perfect sick day activity.
Graeme Butler 3 August, 2015 17:27
Alfred house or Agnew's house, later Bedeque of 1866-house 38-40 Dudley St was the one cited above.
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