RMS Quetta was an iron-hulled steamship that was built in Scotland in 1881 and wrecked with great loss of life in the Torres Strait in 1890. She was operated by British India Associated Steamers (BIAS), which was controlled by the British India Steam Navigation Company (BISN). She was wrecked on a previously unknown rock, which has been called Quetta Rock ever since. The Underwater Cultural Heritage Act 2018 protects the wreck.

Quetta at Gravesend in 1884
United Kingdom
OperatorBritish India Associated Steamers
Port of registryGlasgow
BuilderWm Denny & Bros, Dumbarton
Yard number243
Launched1 March 1881
Completed18 May 1881
Fatewrecked 1890
General characteristics
Typecargo liner
Tonnage3,484 GRT, 2,254 NRT
Length380.0 ft (115.8 m)
Beam40.3 ft (12.3 m)
Depth29.0 ft (8.8 m)
Installed power500 HP
Sail plan3-masted barquentine
Speed12 knots (22 km/h)
  • cargo: 148,253 cubic feet (4,198 m3)
  • passengers: 76 × 1st class, 32 × 2nd class, plus steerage
Noteshydraulic cargo handling equipment



William Denny and Brothers built Quetta for £70,119[1] at Dumbarton on the River Leven as yard number 243. She was launched on 1 March 1881[2] and completed on 18 May.[1] Her registered length was 380.0 ft (115.8 m), her beam was 40.3 ft (12.3 m) and her depth was 29.0 ft (8.8 m). Her tonnages were 3,484 GRT and 2,254 NRT.[3] She had berths for 76 passengers in first class and 32 in second class,[1] plus steerage accommodation for migrants.

Quetta had a single screw, driven by a two-cylinder compound engine built by Denny. It was rated at 500 HP and gave her a speed of 12 knots (22 km/h). The ship had three masts, and was rigged as a barquentine. She also had hydraulically-driven cargo handling equipment.[1]

Denny built Quetta for Gray, Dawes and Company,[3] who since 1865 had been BISN's London agents.[4] They registered her in Glasgow. Her United Kingdom official number was 84309 and her code letters were VMNG.[5]

British India Associated Services


In 1876 BISN created BIAS to run a scheduled service between London and Calcutta via Gibraltar, the Suez Canal, Colombo, and Madras (now Chennai). BIAS managed the ships, but one or more private shareholders owned each ship.[6] Quetta worked the London – Calcutta route for the first two years of her career.[1]

Quetta was one of a series of three-masted brigantines that Denny built for BIAS. Denny completed India in November 1881.[7] She was similar to Quetta, but about 10 feet (3 m) longer, 2 feet (0.6 m) greater beam, and built of steel instead of iron.[8] India was the first ship in the BISN group to have electric light.[7] Denny completed Goorkha, a sister ship for India, in May 1882.[7] Then in April 1884 Denny completed Manora, which at 410 feet (120 m) long and 45.2 feet (13.8 m) beam was larger still.[9]

Queensland Royal Mail route

Quetta in the Suez Canal, date unknown

Mail and passenger ships between Britain and Australia mostly served a route via Australia's south coast, calling at either Fremantle or Albany, Adelaide, Melbourne, and Sydney. Not all ships continued up the east coast to Brisbane. The Colony of Queensland thus had a passenger and mail link with Britain that was less direct and less frequent than the other Australian colonies enjoyed.[10]

In 1881 Thomas McIlwraith, Premier of Queensland obtained parliamentary authority for to offer a mail contract for a shipping company to run a service between London and Brisbane via the Torres Strait. BIAS won the contract, and formed the Queensland Steam Ship Company to run feeder routes to connect with it.[10]

In 1883 BIAS doubled the frequency of its London – Brisbane service. For this it chartered six ships,[11] and also transferred Quetta to the route.[1] On 8 April that year Quetta left London on her first voyage to Brisbane. She called at Plymouth, Port Said, Aden, and Batavia (now Jakarta). On 29 May she reached Cooktown in North Queensland.[12] She continued down Queensland's east coast, calling at Cleveland Bay (for Townsville), Bowen, and Keppel Bay (for Rockhampton).[13][14][15]

At Cleveland Bay she disembarked 67 migrants for Townsville,[16] and at Keppel Bay she disembarked 115 migrants to a steam launch, which landed them at Rockhampton.[17] She steamed from Keppel Bay to Cape Moreton in 24 hours, setting what was then a record,[18] and arrived off Brisbane on 5 June.[19]

By 1886 ownership of Quetta had been transferred from Gray, Dawes & Co to BIAS.[20] By 1890 she had made 11 round trips between London and Brisbane.[citation needed]



On 18 February 1890 Quetta left Brisbane for London.[21] Along the Queensland coast she called at Townsville, Cairns, Kimberley, and Cooktown.[22][23] She was due to call at Batavia, Singapore, and Colombo.[21]

Quetta's Master was Captain AA Sanders.[24] Her ship's company comprised 28 European officers and ratings and 93 lascars. After leaving Cooktown she carried 171 passengers: 33 first or second class, 65 steerage, and 62 Javanese labourers,[25] who were returning to Batavia as deck passengers from working on sugar cane plantations.[citation needed]

An artist's impression of Quetta sinking, published in The Queenslander

Quetta embarked an experienced pilot, Captain Keating, to command her through the Torres Strait. She turned into the Adolphus Channel to round the Cape York Peninsula. The pilot was experienced, the weather fine and visibility good, but at 21:14 hrs she struck an uncharted rock in the middle of the channel near Albany Island.[26] Captain Keating estimated the rock's position to be 10°40′10″S 142°38′10″E / 10.66944°S 142.63611°E / -10.66944; 142.63611.[27] It split open the steel plates of her hull from her bow to her engine room. She settled by her bow, listed to port, raised her stern out of the water, and then sank, all within three minutes.[28]

Quetta's cutter floated clear but capsized, surrounded by a large group of Javanese and lascars. Quartermaster James Oates organised the baling of the cutter and steered it ashore.[citation needed] Her Number 1 (starboard) lifeboat floated free, but was damaged and capsized. Captain Keating and the Third Officer Thomas Babb, righted it, but were unable to bale it out. It picked up more survivors, including Captain Sanders. The two boats met, and landed their survivors[28] on Mount Adolphus Island.


People aboard at time of the sinking
Group No. aboard Survival rate
Javanese passengers 70 79%
Lascar ratings 92 78%
Saloon passengers 26 19%
Steerage passengers 75 86%
European officers 15
European ratings 14
Total 292 54%

Captain Keating led a party to Somerset on the Cape York Peninsula.[28] A Somerset resident, Frank Jardine, organised a rescue with his own boats, and sent messengers to the nearest telegraph station, 15 miles (24 km) away,[29] to summon steamers from Thursday Island.[28] Jardine also provided one of Quetta's boats with food and water for the survivors. The boat then made for Mount Adolphus Island. Later the boat stopped the steamship Victoria, to which Captains Keating and Sanders and some lascars transferred.[28] One of Jardine's boats was already at sea, having been catching turtles, and was on its way back to Somerset. It encountered wreckage, from which its crew rescued ten survivors.[30]

The telegram reached Thursday Island about 14:00 hrs on 1 March. The government resident, John Douglas, sent the steamer Albatross from Port Kennedy. Another captain volunteered to take his steamer, Merrie England, as well. After about three hours Albatross met Victoria, from which it took off Captains Keating and Sanders and the lascars. Albatross continued to Mount Adolphus Island, whence she picked up nearly 100 survivors, including the second and fourth officers.[30]

An illustration for The Queenslander representing some of Quetta's lost and saved

Just before Quetta hit the rock, two teenagers, May Lacy and Alice Elizabeth Nicklin, had been on deck. They were separated in the sinking, but Nicklin was a strong swimmer and clung to flotsam: first a hatch cover, then a dead sheep, and finally a plank. The survivors in the boats could hear her calling, but it was too dark to see her as the moon had set. Nicklin kept hold of the plank, alternately swimming and falling asleep, until dawn, when she swam to an islet, still aided by the plank. When she neared the islet, a lascar cabin boy called Alick, who had already reached the island, helped her ashore.[31] Later one of the vessels searching for survivors found the pair and took them to Somerset.[32]

May Lacy did not survive. However, Albatross found her elder sister Emily, still swimming in the sea 36 hours after the sinking.[30][32]

One other survivor was a toddler who did not know her own name. The only words she said were "Mama", "Jimmsy" and "Willie".[33] About 30 children had been aboard Quetta, and her manifest listed more than one family with boys called James and William. One was that of a widow, Mary Copeland from Maryborough, who had a young daughter also called Mary. Mrs Copeland and her three children were returning to Britain after her husband, a stockman, had drowned in a separate accident.[25]

The toddler was photographed, and a print of the photograph was sent to a family in Scotland believed to be her relatives, but the family replied that they did not recognise her. One of the Torres Straits pilots, Captain Edmund Brown, adopted her, naming her Cecil Quetta Brown,[33] nicknamed "Cissy".[34] A year or two later Captain Brown died, so his brother Villiers Brown raised "Cissy" in Brisbane.[35] In 1927 it was confirmed that "Cissy" was in fact Mary Copeland.[36]

After rescuing survivors, Albatross took soundings and found the rock thought to have caused the disaster, about 12 nautical mile (1 km) from Quetta's wreck.[37]

Notable passengers

The memorial cathedral, with a monument to Quetta in the foreground

Wreck and monument


The wreck lies on its port side in 18 metres (59 ft) of water and is protected by the Underwater Cultural Heritage Act 2018.

Quetta Memorial Precinct on Thursday Island is a monument to the 134 lives lost in the disaster. Building started in 1892 and the church was consecrated in 1893. It comprises an Anglican church, rectory, and church hall. The church is now a cathedral, and the rectory is the bishop's house.[40] Artefacts recovered during salvage attempts after the disaster, and since, are now in the church.[37]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Haws 1987, p. 63.
  2. ^ "Quetta". Scottish Built Ships. Caledonian Maritime Research Trust. Retrieved 24 January 2024.
  3. ^ a b Lloyd's Register 1882, QUE.
  4. ^ Haws 1987, p. 14.
  5. ^ Mercantile Navy List 1882, p. 118.
  6. ^ Haws 1987, p. 16.
  7. ^ a b c Haws 1987, p. 62.
  8. ^ "India". Scottish Built Ships. Caledonian Maritime Research Trust. Retrieved 24 January 2024.
  9. ^ Haws 1987, p. 66.
  10. ^ a b Haws 1987, p. 17.
  11. ^ Haws 1987, p. 18.
  12. ^ "Queensland news". The Brisbane Courier. Brisbane. 30 May 1883. p. 5 – via Trove.
  13. ^ "Shipping movements". The Telegraph. Brisbane. 1 June 1883. p. 2 – via Trove.
  14. ^ "Shipping movements". The Telegraph. Brisbane. 2 June 1883. p. 4 – via Trove.
  15. ^ "Shipping". The Brisbane Courier. Brisbane. 5 June 1883. p. 4 – via Trove.
  16. ^ "Townsville". The Brisbane Courier. Brisbane. 9 June 1883. p. 7 – via Trove.
  17. ^ "Rockhampton". The Brisbane Courier. Brisbane. 9 June 1883. p. 7 – via Trove.
  18. ^ "Shipping movements". The Telegraph. Brisbane. 5 June 1883. p. 2 – via Trove.
  19. ^ "Shipping". The Brisbane Courier. Brisbane. 6 June 1883. p. 4 – via Trove.
  20. ^ Lloyd's Register 1886, QUE.
  21. ^ a b "Quetta's Departure". The Telegraph. Brisbane. 18 February 1890. p. 5 – via Trove.
  22. ^ "Shipping". The Brisbane Courier. Brisbane. 27 February 1890. p. 3 – via Trove.
  23. ^ "Shipping". The Brisbane Courier. Brisbane. 28 February 1890. p. 3 – via Trove.
  24. ^ Blake 1956, p. 133.
  25. ^ a b "Passengers and crew of the Quetta". The Queenslander. Brisbane. 8 March 1890. p. 444 – via Trove.
  26. ^ "Wreck of the Quetta". The Queenslander. Brisbane. 15 March 1890. p. 504 – via Trove.
  27. ^ "Where the Quetta Struck". The Telegraph. Brisbane. 3 March 1890. p. 5 – via Trove.
  28. ^ a b c d e "The pilot's statement". The Brisbane Courier. Brisbane. 4 March 1890. p. 5 – via Trove.
  29. ^ "R.M.S. Quetta". The Telegraph. Brisbane. 3 March 1890. p. 2 – via Trove.
  30. ^ a b c "Rev. A. McLaren's account". The Brisbane Courier. Brisbane. 4 March 1890. p. 5 – via Trove.
  31. ^ a b "Miss Nicklin's statement". The Brisbane Courier. Brisbane. 4 March 1890. p. 5. Retrieved 24 January 2024 – via Trove.
  32. ^ a b c Kuss, Debra (22 February 2023). "Thursday Island and the Quetta Survivors". Quadrant.
  33. ^ a b Jackson, Trevor. "Quetta Brown". Mike Ball Dive Expeditions. Mike Ball. Retrieved 25 January 2024.
  34. ^ JOL Admin (17 August 2017). "Queensland Places - Thursday Island - E.L. Brown, General Importer and Merchant". State Library of Queensland. Retrieved 24 January 2024.
  35. ^ "Death Of Woman Recalls Quetta Sinking Off Coast". The Telegraph. Brisbane. 1 June 1949. p. 21. Retrieved 24 January 2024 – via Trove.
  36. ^ "Passing of Mrs. MacDonald". South Coast Bulletin. Southport. 8 June 1949. p. 12. Retrieved 24 January 2024 – via Trove.
  37. ^ a b Randall, Brian (12 December 2016). "Queensland Places - Thursday Island - RMS Quetta - What happened after the sinking?". State Library Of Queensland. Retrieved 25 September 2023.
  38. ^ Quetta Brown documentary at IMDb  
  39. ^ Bolton, GC. "Claudius Buchanan Whish (1827–1890)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Melbourne University Publishing. Retrieved 2 October 2012.
  40. ^ "Quetta Memorial Precinct (entry 602168)". Queensland Heritage Register. Queensland Heritage Council. Retrieved 19 January 2014.