My Photos 1
The last real shipwreck to occur in the Sydney area was the loss
of the SS Birchgrove Park on 2 August 1956. The
Birchgrove Park was lost off the far northern beaches of the
City in a terrible storm while on a regular trip from Newcastle
Robert William Miller was born on Monday 27th January 1879 at
South Queensferry, West Lothian, Scotland. He was the son of
Robert Johnston Miller and Christina (Fraser). Like is father R.
W. Miller went to sea in 1893 as a cabin boy on sailing ships.
During 1895, he sailed around Cape Horn and before 1900 he had
acquired his Master Mariner's Ticket.
In 1901 Miller came to Australia and obtained a job with
Huddart-Parker Limited as a Second Mate. On 8th February 1910 he
married Annie May Kieran at St Marys Cathedral in Sydney.
In 1908 Miller left Huddart-Parker and started a marine
business venture as a lighterman, transporting goods by loading
and unloading ships not at a wharf. To do this he purchaed a
punt and a second-hand tug. It appears that Robert W. Miller
traded under the name R.W. Miller and Company from early 1912.
One of Miller's first contracts was to pick up overburden and
spoil from the sinking of the Balmain Colliery shaft and dump it
at sea. Miller saw the opportunity to sell this material and he
ended up getting sixpence a ton from a local council and other
contractors for use as road bases and building foundations.
Following this close association on Wednesday 15th January 1913
Robert W. Miller was given the contract for coal distribution
from Sydney Harbour Colliery Limited (Balmain mine). So begin a
long association with coal.
Miller built a fleet of lighters that were used to transport
blue metal, sand and coal around Sydney Harbour. This
introduction into coal transport opened a prospect for him to
enter the larger coal shipping transport. During 1917 Miller
purchased a vessel, the Audrey D in the name of his wife,
Annie May Miller. The ship was used to carry coal from Newcastle
to Sydney. This was a tremendous success and in mid-1918 R.W.
Miller acquired a second vessel, the Douglas Mawson This
was sold the next year and in August 1919 the Meeinderry
was purchased from Huddart-Parker Shipping Company. A fourth
ship, the Herga was purchased in early 1921.
In 1921 R. W. Miller owned 10 punts, 4 ships, 2 hulks and 3
tugs. On Thursday 22 February 1923 Ayrfield Colliery in the
Hunter Valley (later to become Ayrfield No. 1) was purchased by
Robert W. Miller. R.W. Miller and Company was incorporated in
July 1923 and from Thursday 19 July 1923 its offices were at 38A
Pitt Street, Sydney. From late 1927 or early 1928 its Head
Office was located at 19 Bridge Street, Sydney where it remained
for almost 50 years.
In 1924 the SS William Macarthur (named after Miller's
step-father) built by J. Lewis and Sons of Aberdeen, Scotland
arrived in Australia became R.W. Miller's first carrier for his
Newcastle to Melbourne coal run. In early 1924 Miller took over
operations of the closed Heddon Greta Colliery. This was
legalised on 24 September 1924 and the mine was renamed Ayrfield
No 2 Colliery.
|HMAS Birchgrove Park during
In mid 1924 Miller had discussed with Christian Franks of the
Millfield Mining Company about purchasing the Millfield Mining
Company's new mine and coal leases. By October 1924 Miller owned
this mine but it appears that it was placed in mothballs soon
after till about 1929. In the end, Miller owned over 20 coal
During the mid 1920s Miller's output of coal meant that
additional ships were needed to transport the coal to Sydney. In
1925 SS Christina Fraser (named after Miller's mother)
was built by J. Duthie Torry Steamship Company of Aberdeen,
Scotland. In 1928 the SS
Annie M. Miller was purchased but on 8 February 1929,
less than three months after its acquisition, she sank off
Sydney. This meant that R.W. Miller and Co. needed another
collier. In mid-1930 when its finances were in a better state,
an order was placed for a new vessel. The Birchgrove Park
was a collier built by J. Lewis and Sons of Aberdeen, Scotland
and launched in November 1930. The Birchgrove Park
(Lloyd's Register 157592) was a collier of 640 tons and was 47
metres long and 10 metres wide. Constructed of steel and powered
by a coal powered boiler and a triple expansion cylinder steam
engine (producing 93 rhp - exactly the same as the Annie M.
Miller's engine - it may have been identical in design)
turning a single screw, the Birchgrove Park represents
the end of an era, that of coal transport to Sydney by ship.
Leaving the UK on 5 November 1930, the Birchgrove Park
arrived in Sydney on 18 January 1931. Within two weeks she
entered service, first working from Bulli but then Newcastle.
On 9 May 1941, the ship was requisitioned by the Royal
Australian Navy for conversion into an auxiliary minesweeper.
HMAS Birchgrove Park (FY15 - carried BP on bow) was
commissioned into the Navy on 22 August 1941. Fitted with two
Oerlikon heavy machine guns and a large 12 pounder gun,
Birchgrove Park was then recommissioned in 1942 as a stores
carrier. In August 1943 the Birchgrove Park arrived in
Port Moresby and for the next two years she served various New
|Ray Briggs in front of the SS
at an unknown location
Photo provided by Geoff Cook
On 22 September 1945 HMAS Birchgrove Park was in Ambon
(now Indonesia) with HMAS Glenlg, HMAS Westralia
In April 1945 the Birchgrove Park was paid off but on
25 July 1945 she was recommissioned as a tender. In December of
the same year she was finally paid off and returned to R.W.
Miller and Co. in February 1946. She went back to her regular
Newcastle/Sydney run, although from all reports, by early 1956
her condition had deteriorated to such an extent where she was
soon expected to be scrapped. However, the Sydney Morning
Herald reported on 4 August 1956 that the Miller had
been surveyed in July 1956 and issued with a certificate of
Although the last Sixty Miler did not disappear from service
till mid-1993, in reality they were doomed from the late 1950s
or early 1960s. Instead of having power stations in the middle
of the city (eg Pyrmont, Balmain, White Bay and Bunnerong), a
decision was made to replace these old dinosaurs by constructing
the new super-stations on the coalfields themselves. This did
away with a reason for the small colliers to ply their loads the
short distance from Wollongong and Newcastle to Sydney. The
other reason for transporting coal to Sydney was to replenish
the bunkers of international coal-powered vessels. These had, of
course, by now mostly switched over to diesel or oil powered
At 1.45 pm on 1 August 1956, the Birchgrove Park left
Newcastle with a slight list to port. The weather was fine and
sea conditions were calm. No change was predicted for more than
12 hours. However, just like now, the weather bureau was wrong
and a half hour after leaving Newcastle a southerly buster hit.
|The SS Birchgrove Park
just after passing under the
Sydney Harbour Bridge
Waves started coming over the deck and the holds quickly took
in water as the tarpaulins had worked loose. Although they were
put back in place, an hour later they were again loose and more
water was in the hold. The list increased and despite attention,
water continued to enter the holds.
The Birchgrove Park was now off Broken Bay and the
winds were over 40 mph, every wave crashing over the deck. Still
Captain Laurence Lynch did not seek the safety of Broken Bay. It
was now midnight and water was entering the ship through a
corroded steampipe and the vents on the forecastle. Soon after,
the Leading Fireman, Erl Olsen, reported that the water could
soon flood the boiler fires, disabling the ship.
Captain Lynch ordered the crew on deck and attempted to
prepare the lifeboats for launching. Due to the list, this was
not successful. In addition, the ship's calls for help were
never received as the aerial had not been erected before leaving
Newcastle. The Birchgrove Park was still steaming on and
at 2.35 am Captain Lynch asked Olsen to return to the engine
room to shut down the engines. Despite the risk, Olsen
successfully completed the task as Captain Lynch got an SOS away
to the South Head Signal Station by lamp.
At 2.45 am, the Birchgrove Park turned over and sank.
The crew went into the water, clinging to the debris which came
from the ship. A lifeboat was found and three crew clambered
aboard. These were Erl Olsen, Charles Camilleri and Neil Stuart.
Waves were crashing over the boat and Olsen and the only oar
went into the ocean. Olsen managed to get back into the boat but
the oar was lost.
The collier William Macarthur heading north was
informed of the loss and the Captain Cook set out at 3.30
am. Unfortunately, they started searching off Long Reef, almost
10 kilometres to the south of where the Birchgrove Park
had gone down.
Early in the morning the RAN sent three vessels, and later, a
submarine, to assist in the search. Two Neptune aircraft from
the RAAF were also sent to help in the search.
At 6.00 am, Charles Camilleri died of exhaustion in the
lifeboat and five hours later the boat was washed ashore at
Lobster Bay with Olsen and Stuart still aboard. They sheltered
in a shack. One of the planes sighted a number of objects in the
water and dropped flares to locate each for the searching ships.
HMAS Wagga responded to one flare and found Kenneth
Fabian alive but in very poor condition. Two crew ended up
diving in to save and assist getting him out of the water. They
also found a body. About the same time, HMS Thorough, a
Royal Navy submarine, rescued Joseph Butler, the last to be
found alive. Five bodies were found by the Police launch
Nemesis. The SS Teralba, also a Miller ship, found
the body of Osborn Marsh. The last body recovered on the day of
the sinking was found by a Palm Beach resident, Mr C. Gower, who
was out searching in his launch Caroline H. Note that
there was a report in a newspaper that a final body was found on
Manly Beach at 9 am on 4 August 1956. However, this was
incorrect. It appears that there may have been something sighted
in the water but it was not a body. Ten crew died in the
sinking, two bodies never to be found. Not found were the bodies
of the Donkeyman, Alexander Robb and the First Engineer, William
Butler and Fabian ended up in Sydney Hospital while Olsen and
Stuart ended up in Manly Hospital. Butler and Fabian were still
in hospital on 4 August 1956 while the other two were released
on 3 August 1956.
On 3 August 1956, two fishermen found the other lifeboat half
submerged off Kilcare Beach on the Central Coast. They towed it
- Erl Olsen - Leading Fireman - Matraville
- Kenneth Mervyn Fabian - Able Seaman - Randwick
- Neil (or Ned?) McLeod Stuart - Able Seaman -
- Joseph Butler - Second Engineer - Randwick
- Captain Laurence Lynch - Wollonstonecraft
- David Waltanen - First Mate - Balmain
- Charles Camilleri - Cook - Potts Point
- Alexander Robb - Donkeyman - Birmingham Gardens
- Charalambos Dimitrious - Able Seaman - Plumpton
- Clive Roberts - Fireman - Heathcote
- Thomas Claude Kenny - Second Mate - Petersham
- Osborn Charles Marsh - Able Seaman - Woollahra
- Brian Boyle - Steward - Blakehurst
- William Gordon Sim - First Engineer - Harbord
R. W. Miller went on to own Miller's Brewery on Parramatta
Road (now the orange Miller's Storage building), famous hotels
such as Miller's Brighton and Coogee and the family now owns the
huge Miller's Storage company. R. W. Miller died on Monday 10
February 1958 at Lewisham.