Clipper Coonatto c. 1865
United Kingdom
OwnerAnderson, Thompson & Co
BuilderThomas Bilbe and William Perry, Rotherhithe
Fatewrecked February 1876
General characteristics
Class and typeclipper
Tonnage633 NRT
Length160.2 ft (48.8 m)
Beam29 ft (8.8 m)

'Coonatto, was a clipper ship trading between London and Adelaide for 12 years. She was wrecked on the English coast in February 1876.


Coonatto was built by Thomas Bilbe and William Perry at the Nelson Dock, Rotherhithe, South London in 1863 for Anderson, Thompson & Co., previously James Thompson & Co.[1] and later Anderson, Anderson & Co.; from 1861 trading as "The Orient Line of Packets", commonly referred to as the "Orient Line" of London.[2] Their relationship with the builder began with Celestial, an all-timber ship constructed on their patented system of framing, followed by the clipper Orient, from which the line gained its name. Other ships built by Bilbe for the company were Argonaut, Borealis and Yatala, the last-named also on the Adelaide route.

Coonatto was named for the once famous sheep station of Grant and Stokes.[3] She was a vessel of 633 tons, 160.2 feet (48.8 m) long with a 29 feet (8.8 m) beam and designed to carry both passengers and cargo swiftly to the antipodes; the cargo on the return voyage being chiefly wool, but also copper. She was an early example of composite construction: with an iron frame and timber cladding, giving more open space for cargo.[4]

Her master for the first four voyages was Captain William Begg, previously of the Sebastian. He was a hard-driving skipper who made some very quick passages to Adelaide; her fastest time was 66 days to the Semaphore lightship and 70 from dock to dock, even after losing both her helmsman and the wheel overboard during a manoeuvre off St Paul's Island.[4] Begg was succeeded 1869–1872 by James Norval Smart, previously master of The Murray. John Eilbeck Hillman succeeded Captain Smart.[5]

The Coonatto (Coonato) on the far right, May 1867 or 1869 at Port Adelaide.
The Coonatto (Coonato) on the far right, May 1867 or 1869 at Port Adelaide.

During the sixties and seventies, when Sydney and Melbourne were filling their harbours with the finest ships in the British Mercantile Marine, Adelaide, in a smaller way, was carrying on an ever increasing trade of her own, in which some very smart little clippers were making very good money and putting up sailing records which could well bear comparison with those made by the more powerful clippers sailing to Hobson's Bay and Port Jackson. ... Their captains, however, were always keen in rivalry and put a high value on their reputations as desperate sail carriers. They made little of weather that would have scared men who commanded ships of three times the tonnage of those little Adelaide clippers, and they were not afraid of a little water on deck. — Basil Lubbock in The Colonial Clippers (1921)[4]

Her last trip was uneventful until almost home. She left Adelaide on 14 November 1875 laden with copper and wool and reached the Channel on 19 February. The usual lights was seen: Bishop Rock, The Lizard and Start, and St. Catherine's, but not the light at Beachy Head,[6] which was where Coonatto foundered. There were no injuries, and much of the cargo was saved, but the ship broke up and was lost. The Board of Trade enquiry found Captain Hillman negligent in not sounding for depth when his position was in doubt, and his certificate was suspended for three months.[7] These circumstances closely mirrored the loss of the Yatala under John Legoe of the same company just four years earlier. A year later Hillman was appointed master of the Inch Kenneth (1866) of 1,120 tons, which on 23 September 1877 capsized and sank in the South Atlantic, the cause being attributed to the load, bags of wheat and linseed, shifting in heavy seas. 18 of her complement of 26 perished, Hillman included; the eight who survived had been at sea for three days in the lifeboat before being picked up by the Liverpool.[8]

Some other clippers on the England to Adelaide run


  1. ^ Variously spelled Thompson or Thomson; by some references both in the same sentence.
  2. ^ The "Orient Line" became the "Peninsula and Orient Steam Navigation Company", which eventually became the familiar "P.& O.".
  3. ^ A. T. Saunders (5 March 1927). "Notes and Queries". The Register (Adelaide). Vol. XCII, no. 26, 692. South Australia. p. 14. Retrieved 11 April 2017 – via National Library of Australia.
  4. ^ a b c "Rotherhithe blog". Retrieved 12 April 2017.
  5. ^ "Some famous Clipper Ships of Olden Days". The Observer. Vol. LXXVIII, no. 5, 841. South Australia. 1 January 1921. p. 26. Retrieved 5 April 2017 – via National Library of Australia.
  6. ^ This was a recognised problem with the Belle Tout lighthouse, and the impetus for construction of the Beachy Head Lighthouse.
  7. ^ "The Coonatto Enquiry". South Australian Register. Vol. XLI, no. 9228. South Australia. 12 June 1876. p. 4. Retrieved 11 April 2017 – via National Library of Australia.
  8. ^ "Shipwreck and Loss of Life". South Australian Register. Vol. XLII, no. 9686. South Australia. 29 November 1877. p. 5. Retrieved 11 April 2017 – via National Library of Australia.