RMS Quetta

RMS Quetta was a Royal Mail Ship that was wrecked on the Far North Queensland coast of Australia on 28 February 1890. Quetta's sinking killed 134 of the 292 people on board, making it one of Queensland's biggest maritime catastrophes. It was caused by collision with an uncharted rock in the Adolphus Channel.

RMS Quetta in 1884
RMS Quetta in 1884 near Gravesend on the River Thames
OwnerBritish-India SN Co
OperatorBritish-India SN Co
LaunchedMarch 1881
FateWrecked 28 February 1890 after hitting rocks near the Torres Straits
General characteristics
Tonnage3,300 GRT
Length380 ft (120 m)
Beam40 ft (12 m)
Propulsionsteam & sail
SpeedOver 13 knots (24 km/h)
  • Designed for:
  • 72 saloon (1st class) passengers
  • 32 steerage (2nd class) passengers


RMS Quetta was a British-India Steam Navigation Company liner that travelled between England, India and the Far East. The Queensland Government negotiated to have a service between the United Kingdom and Brisbane, to ease the passage of people and mail. Quetta was specifically built for the Australia run, with refrigeration capacity for the frozen meat trade. The ship was launched in March 1881 and made her first voyage to Brisbane in 1883. The designation RMS indicated the ship's role within the Queensland Royal Mail Line. Her sister ships were Manora and Merkara.

The ship was initially designed for 72 saloon (first class) and 32 steerage (second class) passengers, although this was later altered to favour steerage class due to the large number of migrants using the service. In five-and-a-half years service Quetta made 11 London-Brisbane round trips; the twelfth would be her final attempt.


Drawing of Quetta sinking

On the night of 28 February 1890 the ship's master was Captain Sanders, with Captain Keatinge aboard piloting the ship through the Torres Strait. Destined for Thursday Island, the ship turned into the Adolphus Channel to round the Cape York Peninsula. The pilot was experienced, the weather fine and visibility good, but at 9:14pm the ship struck an uncharted rock in the middle of the channel near Albany Island.[1]

The rock ripped a hole through the plates from the bow to the engine room amidships, four to 12 feet wide, sinking Quetta in 5 minutes and sending 134 of her passengers to their deaths. At the time, Quetta's loss was thought to be the worst maritime disaster of Queensland.

At the time of the disaster Quetta had 292 people aboard: a crew of 121, comprising 15 European officers, 14 from other trades and 92 lascars from India; 70 Javanese in temporary deck houses, travelling to Batavia after working in the cane fields; and 101 other passengers.

People aboard at time of the disaster
Group No. aboard Survival rate
Javanese passengers 70 79%
Lascar crew 92 78%
Saloon passengers 26 19%
Steerage passengers 75 86%
European officers 15
Crew (other trades) 14
Total 292 54%

The ship's cutter floated clear of the wreck and capsized, surrounded by a large group of Javanese and lascar seamen. Quartermaster James Oates organised the baling of the cutter and it headed towards shore. Only one of the ship's lifeboats survived: Number 1 starboard lifeboat controlled by third officer Thomas Babb. It was damaged and largely awash. As it headed toward shore it picked up more survivors including Captain Sanders. Around midnight the two boats came together and those aboard were placed on the nearest island. Captain Sanders then ordered the cutter to search for more survivors.

After spending a night and day without food and water on Little Adolphus Island the main group of ninety-eight survivors were rescued by Albatross, that along with Merrie England had been dispatched from Thursday Island's Port Kennedy.

Albatross took soundings and located the rock thought responsible for the disaster, about one-half mile (0.80 km) from where Quetta lay. Relics raised during salvage attempts months after the disaster, and later, can be found in the Quetta Memorial Church on Thursday Island, which was consecrated in 1893.

She now lies on her port side in 18 metres (59 ft) of water and is a protected historic shipwreck under Australia's Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976.


As a memorial to the lives lost on the Quetta, the Quetta Memorial Precinct was established on Thursday Island, comprising a church (later a cathedral), a rectory and a church hall.[2]

Notable passengersEdit

  • Claudius Buchanan Whish, and wife, Anne Ker Whish (both died)[3]
  • John Watson of Watson, Ferguson and Company, and wife, Elizabeth Selim Watson (both died)
  • George (70) and Jessie Blanche Prentice (18), paternal grandfather and half-sister of George Gray Prentice (both died)
  • Alexander Archer, manager of the Bank of New South Wales in Brisbane, brother of Archibald Archer, and wife, Mary Louisa, a daughter of Sir Robert Mackenzie, 10th Baronet (both died)
  • Reuben Nicklin, and wife, Jane Lahey Nicklin, paternal grandparents of future Premier of Queensland Frank Nicklin both died. Jane Lahey Nicklin was the daughter of the prosperous timber merchant Francis Lahey and her brothers formed Lahey's Canungra Sawmill. The Nicklin family home "Hatherton" became the Queen Alexandra Home. Their 19-year-old daughter Alice Elizabeth Nicklin was one of the few female survivors. She was a strong swimmer and clung onto floating objects including a grating, then a dead sheep, then a plank. She was in the water on the dark, moonless night, sleeping and paddling on the plank and eventually made it to shore about three hours into the next day.[4] Alice married William Horsley, son of Reverend John Horsley of Manly (Queensland), on 22 December 1894 and had seven children between 1896 and 1909 while living in Ipswich (Queensland[5]). Alice was left a widow in 1915 while living on a farm in Manly (Queensland). Alice passed away, aged 81 years, in 1951 at Brisbane.


  1. ^ 'Quetta' wreck as reported in The Queenslander, 15 March 1890, job for post office, 3 March 1981 chart traced by Reverend A A Maclaren including Australia, Albany Island, Mount Adolphus Islands and Acoineh Island;http://trove.nla.gov.au/work/36076160
  2. ^ "Quetta Memorial Precinct (entry 602168)". Queensland Heritage Register. Queensland Heritage Council. Retrieved 19 January 2014.
  3. ^ Bolton, G. C. "Biography - Claudius Buchanan Whish". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Archived from the original on 5 January 2014. Retrieved 2 October 2012.
  4. ^ "THE WRECK OF THE QUETTA". South Australian Register (Adelaide, SA : 1839 - 1900). 5 March 1890. p. 5. Retrieved 6 January 2021.
  5. ^ "Alice Elizabeth (Nicklin) Horsley (1870-1951) | WikiTree FREE Family Tree". www.wikitree.com. Retrieved 6 January 2021.

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