I recently started to research fatal shark attacks that had occurred in Port Phillip Bay. What I found surprised me. There have been 7 since 1835. The contemporary newspaper reports of some of these accounts are quite incredible. So, I made a podcast about it that you can find here.
In researching the podcast I used Trove and Newspapers.com to scour old newspaper reports of shark attacks. I made a list of the newspaper articles I used. You can find them here.
Below is the transcript from the podcast. I paraphrased some of the newspaper articles on the list.
In 1876 the city of Melbourne was a vibrant place with a population of about 250,000 people, making it one of the largest cities in the British Empire. What’s more it was a popular destination for Europeans, Americans and Chinese who were seeking to strike it rich since gold had been discovered in Central Victoria in the 1850s.
Peter Rooney was born in Melbourne in 1857 to Patrick Rooney an Irish labourer and Rose Rooney who was originally from Berkshire in England. The Rooneys had married in 1847 at St. Francis’ Roman Catholic Church. By 1876, Peter was 18, and was one of 5 children to Patrick and Rose, he being the only surviving boy. As was common for the time, 3 of Peter’s siblings, died in infancy, while he had 4 remaining sisters. As the only male heir remaining, he was his parents’ pride and joy, and it was expected he would carry on the Rooney family name.
Peter lived with his parents and sisters in Leichardt Street, a lane off Lonsdale Street. The area was a slum called “Little Lon” and was a notorious red light district replete with poverty. Despite this, he worked as an apprentice stonemason in Emerald Hill, what we today refer to as South Melbourne. Peter was a strong swimmer, and would sometimes swim at the beach after a hard day’s work. The 6th of February 1876 was a Sunday, so while Peter didn’t have work on this day, he was still keen to go for a swim at Emerald Hill with his friend Robert Johnson, and some other young men. The boys got up very early, and arrived at the beach as early as 6am. Peter and Robert set out to swim straight away, and were seen to be swimming from the Emerald Hill jetty to the Emerald Hill Company’s baths. They took rest here before Peter jumped off the piles and swam out into deeper waters, while Robert swam in the shallow waters back towards the jetty.
What happened next would haunt Robert for the rest of his life. Swimming in the shallows he managed to reach the jetty before Peter, and just as he climbed up onto the platform he heard a desperate scream from his mate: “For God’s sake, save me”. Looking around Robert was horrified to see a monster of a shark, 5 metres in length, its enormous jaws clenched on to his friend’s left leg. Before Robert had a chance to react, the shark appeared to be dragging Peter further out to sea, whilst he struggled against it. Watching these events unfold was a man by the name of James Pritchard who was riding his horse on the beach. Without thinking Pritichard rode his horse into the sea in an attempt to rescue Peter from the clutches of the shark. Peter was in about 5 feet of water and was just about to sink beneath the bloody waves when Pritchard, on horseback, grabbed his hand. Pritichard was able to to lift Peter out of the water, but not quite onto the horse, and the shark seemed to hesitate for a second due to the presence of the horse. But, as Pritchard retreated, Peter dangling awkwardly from the horse with blood pumping from the wound to his left thigh, the shark seemed to get its bearings and swam aggressively towards them. This time it bit at Peter’s left calf to the horror of his friends. The scene was nightmarish with the colour of the water all around turning red due to being diluted with blood.
Pritchard struggled on though, still managing to pull Peter towards the shore. At one point the shark swam in between their position and the shore as if to cut them off. By this stage a small crowd had gathered on the beach and the combination of their clamoring and the horse’s frantic neighing seemed to spook the shark, and it swam out to sea.
Peter seemed to be barely conscious, perhaps from shock and blood loss, since he had first yelled out for help. When Pritchard’s horse arrived back on the beach Peter was completely unconscious. They lay him on the sand and rested his head on Robert’s knee. The majority of the flesh of his left thigh and calf dangled from the bone, and blood pumped onto the sand. There was nothing the young men could do and within a few minutes Peter stopped breathing and died.
The next day an inquest was held at the Black Eagle Hotel on Lonsdale Street. Peter’s body had been taken to his mother’s house nearby where the jury could view the body. It was clear from the bite marks that the shark had not taken any of the flesh with it, nevertheless the bones of both the thigh and calf were visible. Patrick, Peter’s father, spoke first at the inquest, followed by Robert Johnson and finally James Pritchard. The jury was then satisfied that Peter had died from blood loss having been bitten by a shark.
It seems that Peter’s mother Rose took Peter’s death particularly badly. She slumped into a deep depression after the loss of her only son and died, herself, within two months of his death. The inscription on her gravestone at Melbourne General Cemetery in Carlton North reads:
Quote ”Erected by Patrick ROONEY in memory of his beloved wife Rose age 51 years who died of excessive grief, 4 Apr 1876 through the loss of their son Peter who was killed by a shark whilst bathing on 6 Feb 1876, age 18 years” end quote.
Peter’s father, Patrick Rooney, would go on to live a very tragic life. Of his 4 remaining children, 2 of them would be dead within 4 years, 1 would die 12 years later at the age of 35 and the last would die in 1898 at the age of 33. He would outlive them all and die a lonely death at the age of 77 in 1899.
As if that wasn’t enough, barely one year later there was another fatal shark attack at a Melbourne beach. William Marks an American from Chicago had recently arrived in Melbourne. He was working as a ferryman on the Yarra River. According to a fellow worker, he was 39 years old, a keen violinist and a very strong swimmer. No doubt he was unaware of the attack that had occurred the year before less than 200 yards from where he decided to go swimming at 7am on Sunday the 4th of February 1877.
On that day, a man by the name of Dorsay Dossor was bathing in the shallows at Emerald Hill. On walking back to the shore, he observed a man, later to be established as William Marks, taking off his clothes before going for a swim himself. Dossor noted that Marks swam out quite a distance, about 300 yards, before swimming parallel with the beach. Dossor observed the unfamiliar man swam confidently before he suddenly seemed to jump or was thrown out of the water. He then seemed to swim a few more yards before he suddenly disappeared beneath the waves. Dossor did not notice any shark, but thought it strange that the man never resurfaced. After waiting some time, he and another man on the beach noticed the swimmer had left some clothes on the beach. Amongst his possessions were a tuning fork, and a letter with American postage marks, addressed to a, William Marks, care of his employer, the ferry operator, on the Yarra River. The men took the possessions to the St. Kilda police station and the police conducted a search of the water using the quote “local Chinamen’s fishing nets” end quote, to trawl the water, but no body was found.
Two days later a man by the name of Thomas Coppin, a saddler who lived on Brunswick Street, was bathing in the local Emerald Hill baths. He noticed a dark object floating in the waves about 300 yards away. Copping reported his discovery to Captain Levens, the owner of the baths. With the help of a telescope Levens was able to tell that the object was that of a dead body and surmised that it must have been that of the American man who had gone missing two days previously. The two men took a boat out to retrieve the body, and when they did, it was obvious that the man had been killed by a shark. The flesh on each leg, from the knee up had been eaten away and there was a large bite mark stretching 14 inches on both his chest and back.
At the inquest into the man’s death, a co-worker from the ferry company he worked at on the Yarra River, identified him as William Marks, a 39 year old American from Chicago, who had been, until his recent arrival in Melbourne, working as a farmer in California.
This attack coming so soon after the one on Peter Rooney the year before, and at virtually the same location, leads one to assume that it may well have been the same shark that killed both men, perhaps a Great White that lurked in that part of the bay in the late 1870s.
But, these were not the first shark-caused fatalities in the Bay. Indeed two had occurred in the bay 20 years earlier in the 1850s. Adolphe Bollander was a 21 year old sailor with the Swedish ship Constance which arrived in Melbourne on March 10th 1858 having left Leith in Scotland on November 25th the previous year. On Sunday the 14th of March, Bollander and some of his fellow crew, were enjoying a swim under the bow of their 785 ton vessel, where it was anchored 1km off the shore, in Hobson’s Bay, at the Northern tip of Port Phillip Bay, near Williamstown. One by one the men had enough of their swim and returned to the ship until Bollander was the only man left in the water. Suddenly, a horrific shriek was heard from his direction. The other sailors who were on the deck looked towards him, and saw that he had been seized on the thigh by a large shark that was dragging him under the water. Bollander was a fit strong man, 6 feet in height, and somehow he managed to escape from the shark’s clutches and reach the ship. The shark though seemed to reenergise and took another chunk out of Bollander’s leg as he was being helped onto the ship, to which he screamed out in agony, and blood pumped out all over the side. It was a horrific scene. The other men used long poles with hooks on the ends and paddles to beat the shark, until it finally relented and they managed to drag him onto the deck. The men immediately took him to the shore in order to seek medical attention, but Bollander died of blood loss before they reached it.
An inquest was held the next day at Williamstown at Rees’s Steam Packet Hotel, where Bollander’s body lay. The coroner remarked that Bollander was an extremely handsome man, but was horrified to observe that the flesh had been completely torn from his thigh. The jury found that he had died from the effects of being bitten in the thigh by a shark, and cautioned against bathing in Hobson’s Bay.
3 years earlier than this incident, in 1855, the earliest recorded confirmed fatal shark attack occurred in Port Phillip Bay. Not much information has been recorded about this incident, including the name of the victim. However, there were enough contemporary media reports about it to confirm that it was a verifiable shark attack. It was reported in Sydney’s Empire Newspaper as follows, quote: “Fatal Occurrence – Reported Destruction of a Bather By a Shark. Yesterday afternoon, two seaman belonging to the whaling brig Curlew, lying off Towns’s Wharf, jumped overboard for the purpose of bathing, and having a swim. They had not been many minutes in the water when one of them suddenly disappeared, and the other rapidly returned to the vessel, and reported that his companion had been seized by a shark.” End Quote
Thus far, we have only reported on fatal shark attacks in Port Phillip Bay that occurred in the 19th century, however, there were a handful that also occurred in the 20th century. 27 years after William Marks was killed at South Melbourne, on the 12th of June 1914, Adriah Croxford, had an encounter at Sandringham Beach that would change her life forever. She went to the beach that day with her husband John Croxford. Mr and Mrs Croxford had eleven children from their marriage, but it is not clear from press reports whether any of the children were with them that day. John Croxford, who was 43 years old, and reportedly an excellent swimmer, was, no doubt, also fairly resistant to cold, considering he chose to swim in the Bay on this day in the middle of winter. At around 3pm he told his wife he was going to swim in the water. He went into the Ti Tree scrub for privacy, and changed into his bathing suit before swimming out quite a distance. Soon afterwards, John returned, no doubt invigorated by the icy water, as he remarked to Adriah how beautiful it was. He told her he was going in again, and this time swam out about 100 yards. Little did Adriah know that she would never speak to the father of her 11 children again.
Mrs Croxford watched her husband enjoy himself for a few moments before seeing a dark object appear in the water behind him. She recognised it as a shark and called out to her husband, but he did not seem to hear her. Abruptly, the shark disappeared beneath the water, and in the next moment John Croxford completely disappeared from view. Adriah Croxford was convinced her husband had been taken below the waves by a shark, so immediately rushed to Sandringham Police Station where, in an extremely agitated state, she informed Constables Lane and Raven about what she had witnessed. The officers arranged for a motor boat to scour the area for Mr Croxford, but they found no sign of him, in fact, despite an extensive search, his body was never found.
But, perhaps the most notable, and eventful fatal shark attack to occur in Port Phillip Bay, occurred on the 15th of February 1930. Norman Clark was born in 1910 in Brighton, a Bayside suburb of Melbourne. He was one of 12 children to James Clark a mechanic, who worked for Brighton Council, and Priscilla Clark. But, James had died in 1924 leaving Priscilla and her 12 children to survive as best they could. By 1930, at just 19, Norman was a winchman at the Melbourne Wharves, where he worked hard to help support his brothers and sisters.
This day, however, was a Saturday, and Norman intended to enjoy it at the beach with his fiance and his 14 year old younger brother, Russell. The day was the occasion of the Interstate dinghy race being held by the Brighton Yacht Club and, as a result, there were about 200 people on Middle Brighton pier watching proceedings.
Norman, his girlfriend, and Russell walked down to the end of the pier, and sat on the lower-level platform which is almost at the level of the sea. This point of the pier is about 400m from the shoreline, and as such the water level is quite deep. While the three were dressed in bathing suits, witnesses described Norman’s girlfriend and brother Russell as reluctant to enter the water, as Norman seemed to spend a few minutes trying to goad his two companions to enter with him.
Unable to convince them, Norman dived in alone and swam out about 7 or 8 metres, before returning to the landing. At this point he began splashing his girlfriend in order to encourage her to jump in with him, but if anything it had the opposite effect to what he intended, as she recoiled away from him because of the cold.
Norman decided this was not going to ruin his fun though, and dived in again, swimming out some distance. He returned to his companions and treaded water about 3 metres from the platform. He once again asked them to join him, and this time it seemed like his girlfriend had acquiesced to his insistence as she approached the edge where he was. Just before she was about to enter though, Norman seemed to raise one hand into the air while shrieking, “Oh!”, before disappearing under the water.
The girlfriend at first thought he was playing games, but a few seconds later, this was proven wrong when Norman reappeared as he was straddling the nose of a huge Great White Shark. The shark clearly had a hold of one of Norman’s legs, and he was desperately struggling with it, throwing punches in a vain attempt to get the beast to let go. At the same time there was a huge commotion on the pier, as onlookers became aware of the terror unfolding in front of their eyes. Norman’s girlfriend fainted almost immediately at the shock of what she was witnessing and was carried away, whilst Russell called pitifully to his brother. But, the shark and Norman, disappeared under the water again, and were carried to a spot about 4 metres from the end of the pier, where they could be faintly made out struggling under the water.
Then, Norman resurfaced again, this time blood diluted the water all around, and he seemed to have been weakened by the shark, as he was not throwing as many punches as he had previously. Again, he was dragged under and resurfaced in a spot about ten metres to the south west side corner of the end of the pier. Here he resurfaced a few times, all the time struggling more and more feebly. This went on for about five minutes before he was dragged under and wasn’t seen again.
Throughout this horrifying experience, about 100 hundred people stood transfixed on the pier, watching the horrifying events unfold. News spread down the pier as to what was happening and swimmers on Brighton Beach soon exited the water, but nobody on the pier attempted to help Norman throughout his ordeal.
A few minutes after he last disappeared, news of the incident had finally motivated someone to put 4 motorised boats into the area to search for any sign of his body. But, they failed to locate neither Norman nor the shark.
Witnesses, described the shark as a monster, 4 to 5 metres long. In the weeks following the tragedy, fishermen throughout Port Phillip Bay made extra effort to catch the shark responsible for Norman’s death. Dozens of sharks were caught and killed, but none of them were the same monster Great White.
For decades afterwards, tales of Norman’s demise took on an almost mythical quality in Melbourne’s pubs and school playgrounds. One apocryphal version of the story which seems to have gotten quite widespread traction was the tale of Norman Clark, the kid who jumped off Brighton pier straight into the jaws of a shark. Of all the incidents detailed in this podcast, it was definitely the one that captured the imagination of Melburnites more than any other. For some reason, his death lived on in memories far longer than any other shark attack. This is despite, the fact that just 6 years later there was another fatality in Melbourne’s bay.
Early in the morning, on the 30th of November 1936, Charles Frederick Swann, a crippled 46 year old World War I veteran who had taken a bullet to the knee in battle, decided to go fishing for snapper in a small dinghy about 6km off the coast of Mordialloc. Concerns were raised when he failed to return and one of the oars, and the backseat to his dinghy washed up on the beach at 3pm. The oars were recognised by a friend of his named George Anstey who had lent them to Swan two weeks previously. That night Anstey and some of Swann’s other friends from Parkdale began to search for him on the Bay in a large motor launch, but did not find him. The next day an R.A.A.F seaplane was sent out to try to find him, and at 11 am it spotted his waterlogged dinghy. A motor boat was sent out to tow the dinghy to shore, and when they arrived they spotted a huge 4 metre Grey Nurse Shark circling the boat. There was a significant 2 by 3 feet hole in the dinghy and a shark’s teeth from the upper and lower jaws were embedded in it. Fisherman believed that the shark had followed a snapper that Swann had hooked, and attacked the boat throwing, him into the water where he was easy pickings for the shark. Numerous sharks were caught in the following weeks in an attempt to find his body, but neither he nor the shark were ever seen again.
1936 is the last time someone was verifiably killed by a shark inside Port Phillip Bay. There have been other incidents just outside the bay, such as the 1956 case in which John Wishart was killed by a 12 foot shark whilst surfing at Portsea backbeach. This is not to mention the infamous case of the disappearance of the Prime Minister of Australia Harold Holt whilst swimming at Portsea backbeach in 1967, there is no evidence he was taken by a shark though. In an extraordinary coincidence another man by the name of Wishart was killed by a shark off Wilson’s Promontory early in Vicotria’s history in 1839. There have been other claimed shark fatalities in Port Phillip Bay such as that of two teenage boys who disappeared whilst fishing from a boat in Carrum in 1916, but despite the coroner finding they were taken by sharks, there was no physical evidence suggesting this was the case and so I don’t consider it a verifiable shark attack. So, in the 185 years since Melbourne’s settlement there have been 7 fatal shark attacks in Port Phillip Bay, in 1855 off Port Melbourne, 1858 off Williamstown, 1876 off South Melbourne, 1877 off South Melbourne, 1914 off Sandringham, 1930 off Brighton, and 1936 at Mordialloc. This means there have been 7 verifiable shark fatalities in Port Phillip Bay, since 1835, but none for 84 years. I suspect this may have something to do with the large number of large sharks that were purposely baited and killed right throughout the 20th century, particularly in the wake of these attacks. There simply may be fewer large sharks in the bay now than there were in the early days of the settlement. Large sharks are rarely sighted in the bay, but they still are occasionally. In 2009, a huge 5 metre Great White Shark was photographed by two fisherman 7km off the coast of Altona. So, while rare, it is clear they do still occasionally frequent the waters of the bay.