Historical information

The postcard shows a photograph of William Ferrier, the 25-year-old Warrnambool fisherman from South Warrnambool whose rescue of two sailors from the wrecked La Bella made him an overnight National hero, quoted as “one of the most heroic rescues in Victoria’s shipwreck history”. The La Bella was wrecked on 10th November 1905 and the photograph was taken on the next day. In the photograph, William Ferrier is seated in the centre, with four of the five survivors beside him: (from left to right) Leonard Robertson, R. Payne, Oscar Rosenholme and Jack Noake.

The photograph was taken by Foyle Photography Studio in Warrnambool, originally owned by James Charles Foyle. He previously had a photographic studio in Melbourne 1882 1887, then opened “Foyle’s Photo Card Studios” in Liebig St, Warrnambool. James Foyle died on 13th July 1905 and his son and daughter, Charles and Lilian Foyle continued on with the business until 1945. This photograph was most likely taken by either Charles or Lilian Foyle.

The story of William Ferrier’s brave act follows on below …

The ship from which the sailors were rescued was the three-masted, iron and steel barquentine the La Bella, built in Norway in 1893. She was one of two iron and steel ships by Johan Smith, the company was one of the leading shipping families in Tvedestrand, Norway. She was significant to Norwegian shipping, being one of only 27 iron and steel ships ever built in Norway. She was registered in New Zealand and engaged from 1902 in inter-colonial trading of timber in the Pacific, between New Zealand and Australia and was often in Port Phillip Bay, Victoria.

On 5th October 1905, the twelve-year-old La Bella left Lyttleton, New Zealand carrying a cargo of timber bound for Warrnambool, Australia. She was manned by a crew of twelve: the Master, (Captain Mylius, previously 1st Mate of La Bella, appointed Captain to La Bella on 6th February 1903) 2 Mates, Cook, six able seamen, one ordinary seaman and a boy. Bad weather en route caused her to shelter at Burnie on Tasmania's North West coast.

On November 10th, the 37th day of her journey, La Bella approached Warrnambool. Captain Mylius steered her towards Lady Bay Channel in heavy south-west seas and evening mist. He ordered the helmsman to steer for the light. As the ship came round, a tremendous sea struck her on the port quarter, causing her to breach broadside in a northwesterly direction into breakers. The helm was brought round twice more, but each time heavy seas broke over her, the third time throwing the La Bella on to a submerged reef in Lady Bay now known as La Bella Reef (about 100 yards from the Warrnambool breakwater). The sea was so rough that it even wrenched a one-and-a-half ton anchor from its fastenings and into the sea.

As Captain Mylius headed to the steel wheelhouse, intending to send up a rocket flare, a huge sea slammed the steel door into him (resulting in massive bruising front and back) Despite his injuries he still managed to set off a blue light, which he held up in his hands. La Bella’s lifeboats were filled with seawater and broke up on their chocks.

The blue light was the first indication to people on the shore that there was a ship in distress. The Harbour Master, Captain Roe (who lived in the Harbour Master’s House opposite Flagstaff Hill), organised a group of volunteers to crew the lifeboat because the trained crew was unavailable; the crewmen were working on a steamer in Port Fairy at the time. He then poured oil onto the water to try and smooth the sea.

At around 11 pm three of the crew took shelter in the steel forecastle but the sea crashed into it and broke it up. While the rest of the crew and onlookers watched helplessly in the moonlight the bodies were washed away into the sea, never to be seen again. Some of the crew lashed themselves to the weather rail to keep from being washed away. Watson, the ordinary seaman, became tangled in the rigging lines and was too weak to move, so the 2nd Mate, Robertson, put a line onto him so that he wouldn’t wash off. Around 11 pm three of the crew were unconscious from exhaustion.

The situation on La Bella was becoming dangerous. The 2nd Mate moved to the ‘house’ and soon afterwards the ship slipped in the heavy sea. The lashings of the 1st Mate and the ‘boy’ Denham had kept them safe until about 2 am when they were washed overboard; no one was able to help. One by one, the exhausted crew were being washed overboard, too weak to hold on any longer. During the night the La Bella had broken into two and the deckhouse ran out towards the sea. Two more men drowned when trying to reach the lifeboat.
By sunrise, the only survivors of the twelve were the Master, 2nd Mate and three seamen.

Early in the morning, Captain Roe used the rocket apparatus on shore to try and shoot a line to the ship for a safer rescue but each attempt fell short of the target.

Several attempts were made by the lifeboat to rescue the stricken sailors, but the rough conditions made this difficult for the boat to get close enough to the ship and the lifeboat had to return to shore. During a final attempt to reach the ship Captain Mylius ordered his men to jump into the sea. Leonard Robertson, 2nd mate, jumped and swam towards the lifeboat, taking hold of the boat hook offered to him. Oscar Rosenholme managed to reach the boat floating on a piece of timber from the ship’s load and a third survivor, Noake, also made the boat.

Along with the lifeboat rescue crew, 25-year-old William Ferrier rowed his small dingy through the heavy seas and managed to rescue the Captain, whom he landed on the breakwater. Ferrier then returned to the ship to attempt a final rescue, losing his oars and rowlocks into the high sea. Using just a spare paddle he skulled towards the La Bella, reaching her stern in time to cut loose the lone surviving sailor, Payne, from the lashing that held him to the ship; the terrified sailor dropped from the ship and into the dingy. Shortly after the last man was rescued, the La Bella was lifted by a huge wave and crashed back down on the reef; she broke up and sank. The ordeal had lasted ten hours.

The survivors were taken to the nearby Bay View Hotel and gratefully received warm food and clothing, medical attention and a place to sleep. In the following days, an unidentified body of a young person had washed ashore; it was either Watson or Denham. The body was buried in the Warrnambool cemetery with an appropriate gravestone and inscription.

William Ferrier became a national hero as news of the daring rescue spread. In recognition of his bravery in the two daring rescues, he was awarded the Silver Medal for Bravery by the Royal Humane Society and was honoured in the letter from the Prime Minister and the Parliament of the Commonwealth, telegrams and a cheque for £20 from the Governor-General, over £150 subscribed by the public, including Warrnambool and district and readers of The Argus, and a gold medal from the Glenelg Dinghy Club of South Australia. Ferrier’s rescue efforts are one of the most heroic in Victoria’s shipwreck history. (William Ferrier’s son, Frank, received a similar award almost fifty years later when he helped rescue four members of the crew on the yacht Merlan after it ran on to a reef near the Point Lonsdale Lighthouse. )

The wreck of La Bella now lies on her port side in 13 metres of sheltered water inside the reef she struck. The bow section is relatively intact and part of the stern has drifted north-easterly towards the mouth of the Hopkins River. The reef the La Bella struck now bears its name.

Those five rescued from the La Bella were Captain George Mylius, Leonard Robertson (2nd Mate, 21 years old), R. Payne, Oscar Rosenholme and Jack Noake.

Those seven who lost their lives were Mr Coulson (1st mate), Charles Jackman (cook) Gustave Johnson, Pierre Johann and Robert Gent (all able seamen), Harry Watson (ordinary seaman) and Jack Denham (ship’s boy),
Captain Mylius was found guilty of careless navigation; he had sailed into the bay without the services of a pilot. His Master Certificate was suspended for twelve months. Later he was also charged with manslaughter of one of the crew who had died when the La Bella was wrecked but found not guilty. The event’s adverse publicity and damage to his career took a toll on his health and he died of a heart attack six months after the wreck; he was only thirty-seven. His body was buried in the Melbourne General Cemetery.

The La Bella was “the best documented of all sailing ships owned in New Zealand”. Her record books, ship logs, correspondence and supporting papers are still available. At the time of the tragedy, she was owned by Messers David C.Turnbull and Co. of Timaru, New Zealand timber merchants and shipping agents, who had purchased her on 13th December 1901. A detailed account of the last journey of La Bella can be read in “Leonard Robertson, the Whangaroa & La Bella” written by Jack Churchouse, published in 1982 by Millwood Press Ltd, Wellington, NZ.

As well as this postcard, Flagstaff Hill’s La Bella Collection includes a photograph of the wrecked La Bella, a brass rail holder and the letter from the Prime Minister and other Members of Parliament that was sent to William Ferrier to commend him for his bravery.

Some 15 – 17 ships are believed to have sunk in Lady Bay, but only two have been discovered on the seafloor; the “La Bella” and the “Edinburgh Castle”. Both wrecks are popular diving sites and are preserved as significant historical marine and marine archaeological sites.


This postcard is part of the La Bella Collection and is significant at both a local and state level. Its connection to the La Bella shipwreck and the rescue of five survivors highlights the dangers of Victoria’s Shipwreck Coast. The photograph of William Ferrier and four of the five survivors demonstrates the bravery of ordinary Australians who risked their lives to save victims of shipwrecks along the coast.
The postcard is significant to the history of Warrnambool as it portrays William Ferrier, a local fisherman whose descendants continue to live in the area. It highlights the way of life of people who lived in coastal towns in 19th century Victoria and the effects of shipwrecks upon them. The postcard connects to the congratulatory letter which was sent to William Ferrier by the Prime Minister and Government of Australia and demonstrates the importance they attached to his efforts for Victoria and to Australia.
The postcard is also an example of the photography of Foyle Photographers who were in the town of Warrnambool from the late 1800’s. Charles and Lillian Foyle took over the business when their father James died in 1905. Lillian Foyle is significant as the first woman photographer in Warrnambool. It is not known whether Charles of Lillian took this photograph.
This postcard is significant because of its association with the sailing ship “La Bella”. The “La Bella” is of local and state and national significance. It is one of the only two shipwrecks discovered in Lady Bay, Warrnambool, out of the 15-17 shipwrecks in the bay.

Physical description

Sepia photograph of William (Bill) Ferrier (seated in the middle), heroic rescuer of two crew members of the La Bella, wrecked at Warrnambool. The photograph is a postcard and shows five men dressed formally in suits and hats.
Printed below the photograph are the name and place of the photographer, a royal crest and the details of two patrons of the photographer.
Also below the photograph are some handwritten words in black pen.
On the back of the postcard is a handwritten message in the same writing as the front.

Inscriptions & markings

Printed on the front of the card is “Foyle, WARRNAMBOOL”
Handwritten on the front of the card is “Bill Ferrier / rescuer / Oh my hero _ _ _ “
Handwritten on the back of the card is a message. “La Bella” Wrecked off W.Bool Breakwater Nov. 1906 (_ _ _ _ show night) Payne Noake Rosenholme Robertson and Capt Mylius (saved) (moonlight bright) Watson (_ _ _ _ boy) Richwoud [possibly Richmond] drowned” and signed “Desdewoua [possibly Desdemona] Slogos”