Timaru’s Caroline Bay used to be known as the Riviera of the South. A wide, sandy beach, it was where Cantabrians would flock (by train) to swim, sunbathe and attend carnivals and concerts. Though it doesn’t quite draw the crowds of ‘Riviera’ times these days, it’s still a beautiful bay, enjoyed by Timaru locals.
But it wasn’t always a place of peace, nor of fine golden sand. Rather, Caroline Bay was a place of heaving southerly swells and many a shipwreck. According to Timaru researcher Roselyn Fauth, the story is a good one – and she’s helping plan a new playground to pay tribute to it.
“The natural basin of the area provided some shelter for ships,” says Roselyn referring back to the 1800s. “So they could come here, and they could import and export.”
When a big southerly swell roared to life, though, Caroline Bay became a graveyard for ships.
“I think over about 16 years we saw 28 shipwrecks here,” says Roselyn, a Timaru local and passionate historian. Mooring became a point of contention: to move the ships closer for more efficient handling of goods? Or to keep them further out, at a safer distance?
At the centre of all this, caught in the politics, was Captain Mills, who’d been harbour master for 16 years. He had a big job, especially when the sea rose up. Captain Mills bore the responsibility of the lives of all those aboard the ships, as well as the rescue Rocket Brigade and lifeboat crew.
The Rocket Brigade had their work cut out for them. They were the late-1800s version of lifeguards, except arguably (as the name suggests) with a more exciting job – one which involved rockets and “rescue pants”. As Keely Kroening, Museum Educator at South Canterbury Museum explains, when a ship was in trouble the signal gun would be heard all over town, and everyone would come running.
“Then they would send a rocket out, holding a rope over the ship, so that the seamen on the ship could grab the rope,” Keely explains. The seamen would tie off the rope to the mast and the brigade would then send out a pair of canvas shorts attached to a buoy. The seamen would hop inside the rescue shorts and be pulled back to shore, one by one.
In 1878, the people decided enough was enough, and work began on a southern breakwater to help protect the ships from the sea. Not everyone was behind the plan. The government’s marine engineer, John Blackett, wrote a report saying the port was a terrible idea, and that it would change the way sediment flowed up the coast.
He would prove to be right about the sediment: where Caroline Bay was once a rocky cliff, it is now a sandy bay. It also starved the lagoon, of which only about 10 percent remains today. But his opinion didn’t stand a chance against the hundreds of locals who turned up to parade and protest against him on the main street. “They hissed and carried this effigy of Blackett down to the breakwater, filled him with fireworks and then blew him up,” says Roselyn.
The breakwater went ahead, but because steamships took priority on the new moorings, many sailboats were still left to anchor too close to shore. Two years after the port construction, Caroline Bay witnessed its biggest shipwreck yet. It was May 14, 1882, and a huge swell had kicked up. The Ben Venue lost anchor, smashing into the rocks where a crowd from town had gathered.
The crew managed to escape to the safety of the City of Perth, but this lost anchor, too, and drifted down the bay before smashing into the wreck of the Ben Venue. Tragically, nine lost their lives, including Timaru’s beloved Captain Mills.
The story of Caroline Bay is a colourful and tragic one. Roselyn Fauth wants to see it be better celebrated, and that the bay be restored to its earlier glory as a place of play. To replace the tired playground that currently sits where so many once ventured for leisure, work is underway on a new playground inspired by Timaru’s stormy history.
Under the name of C-Play, the new playground features a lighthouse, a buried Ben Venue, a Rocket Brigade-themed flying fox and a big focus on inclusivity. Might this new playground put Caroline Bay back on the map as the Riviera of the South?
South Canterbury Museum, Aigantighe Art Gallery, Te Papa, National Library, State Library Victoria, National Library of Australia, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections