27-04-1874: Christ Church, Anglican, Acland Street, St Kilda, Victoria.

Christ Church in St Kilda has many historical stained glass windows created by Ferguson & Urie. One of the most historically significant is the single light memorial window dedicated to the Nicholson brothers, who died within a month of each other in 1874, under different circumstances, and a world apart.

Miles and William Dalzell Nicholson were the second and third son’s of the Hon. William Nicholson, M.L.A [1], who in the 1850’s held the positions of Lord Mayor of Melbourne and Premier of Victoria. Miles died in England on the 27th of April 1874 (circumstances unknown) [2] and his younger brother William died in the tragic wreck of the ‘British Admiral’ off King Island on the 23rd of May 1874 [3].

Many conflicting, or overly embellished, accounts of the final moments of the British Admiral were published after the disaster in many tabloids of the time, and although not directly stated or acknowledged, one account shows William Nicholson’s selflessness in denying his own chance to be saved, instead remaining to comfort some scared children with him on the deck of the ill-fated ship, until they were all swept overboard [4].

Photos taken: 11th February 2011.

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The Nicholson family commissioned Ferguson & Urie to create the stained glass window to the memory of Miles and William and it was erected in Christ Church St Kilda in the north transept . The central depiction in the window is “The Rising of Lazarus from the Dead”. A roundel above depicts the anchor, (the symbol of hope), intertwined with the Passion Flower. The lower panel in the window has an intricately painted roundel depicting the storm and shipwreck of the ‘British Admiral’, which is almost certainly to have been painted by the firms senior artist, David Relph Drape. The memorial inscription at the base of the window reads:

In memory of Miles Nicholson died 27th April 1874 Aged 28. William Dalzell Nicholson, drowned in the wreck of the British Admiral 23rd May 1874 Aged 25“.

As at 2012, the window is observed in Christ Church in a perilous state of condition, having many cracks in the glass, and desperately requiring professional restoration.

In addition to the stained glass memorial there is a marble monument on King Island that stands amongst the sand dunes erected over the grave [5] of William Dalzell Nicholson, near the site where the wreck occurred.

The marble monument reads:


Australian Town and Country Journal, NSW, Saturday 6th June 1874, page 34.


“The recent disasters that have occurred to ships during their passages to Australia and especially Melbourne, culminated last week in the total ship loss of the British Admiral, and the whole of the crew and passengers, except nine…”

“Joseph Cunningham, one of the crew, states that a strong westerly wind was blowing during the night, and Captain Taylor was on deck, expecting every moment to sight Cape Otway. The vessel was then under easy sail, and the passengers all below, there not being the slightest apprehension of danger. About 3 o’clock the man on the lookout shouted, “land ahead,” and it was soon discovered that the ship was standing right on to King’s Island. The watch turned out, and the captain gave the order to “let go the spanker sheet, and to wear the vessel round on the other tack.” This was no sooner accomplished than the lookout man again shouted “breakers ahead.” In a short time the vessel struck. She was then about six miles from land. The captain at once gave the order to clear the boats and call up the passengers. A heartrending scene ensued. The unfortunate people, with nothing on them but their night clothes, came rushing up from below, terror stricken, expecting the vessel to sink every moment. The sea washed clean over the ship, which laboured dreadfully, bumping and grinding against the reef. Cunningham, the second mate, and three or four others cut away one of the boats and jumped in, and succeeded in pushing her off clear of the doomed ship. There were in the boat, along with Cunningham, baker, the second mate; O’Grady, passenger’ Jones, seaman; Arthur Wellesley, seaman; W. Tyrer, and a boy named James Dutton. O’Grady had been in the mizzen rigging, and, seeing the boat pass near the side of the ship he let go of his hold, and fortunately dropped into her…”

“…When O’Grady was about to jump into the boat he saw W. Nicholson, with a number of children beside him, crying for help. Mr. Nicholson was asked to leap into the boat, but he declined, saying he would stay by the youngsters…”

“…John Harold, one of the steerage passengers, stated that, being able to swim well, he jumped off the side of the ship, and swam some distance, in the hope of being able to seize on a piece of floating timber. He had been swimming for about ten minutes when he came across a piece of wood about four feet long and one inch in thickness. He placed his arms across this and floated on it for a while, in quite an exhausted condition. A hen coop, which bore Mr. Nicholson, came close to him on the top of a wave, and Harold left the piece of wood and took hold of the opposite side of the hen coop to Nicholson. The extra weight caused the coop to roll, and both men were submerged soon after by a large sea. Harold then let go his hold, and reached a large plank not far distant, when Nicholson followed him. In the darkness of the night he did not observe, until he got on the plank, that a steerage passenger named Keys had already hold of the plank. He and Keys occupied each end of the plank, while Nicholson had hold of the centre. The last named became so exhausted that he said, “Oh, Harold, I am going.” Harold told him to keep up his courage, as he was sure land could not be far away. A wave came and swept Nicholson off the plank, but he managed to get hold of Harold’s leg, which he held for some time, when the latter implored him to release his grasp. Nicholson released his hold and regained the plank, after sinking once or twice, but he was so weak that in a few minutes he dropped off the plank and disappeared in the gloom…”

There were only nine survivors of the wreck, being:-

“L. O’Grady, cabin passenger’ Chas. McEwan, third mate; John Harold, passenger; Thomas Jones, seaman; David Keys, passenger; Joseph Cunningham, seaman; David Baker, seaman; Frank Wagardo, seaman; Alex Davidson, seaman”.

The morning Bulletin, Rockhampton, QLD, Friday 2nd December 1887, page 6.

“…King Island has been the scene of a terrible number of ship wrecks and the remains of these are to be seen all round the coast. On the southern side stands a marble monument erected by the late Hon. William Nicholson to the memory of his son who was lost with 78 others in the “British Admiral” which foundered there in 1874. There is much of interest derived from the trip of the naturalists and there is no doubt that they have made most of the opportunity offered to them. November 24, 1887”.

Kalgoorlie Western Argus, WA, Tuesday 12th January 1909, page 2.

(By Donald Macdonald, in the “Argus.”)

“…Last of all the great island disasters – and next to the Nera and Cataraque – the saddest tragedy amongst them was the loss of the British Admiral, at a point now known as Admiral Bay, a couple of miles south of Currie Harbour, She was a new ship, and, like so many others, she clung to the last moment to the favouring trade winds, overran her safe easting, mistook the Wickham for the Otway light, and smashed into the same pitiless rocks. Of 88 people on board of her only nine were saved, the same number that escaped from the Cataraque. The disaster was the more pitiable because a great many of the crew, having landed on an outlying sandbank, mistook it for the mainland, which they could easily have reached at low tide. Before morning the rising tide and the heavy back wash swept them away. A headstone sent down from Melbourne by a Mr. Nicholson[6] in memory of his son, who was amongst the lost, and thoughtfully erected by the island hunters, marks the of the wreck, where, with fat Jersey cattle grazing in the paddocks, one walks now knee-deep in yellow trefoil. The black oyster catcher wails upon black headlands, and out yonder in the encompassing kelp the hermit crab nests in dreamless heads. As the years go on, and the fatal north end of King Island is cleared of its scrubs for settlement, bones that have bleached there for half a century or so will be exposed. The sea has taken a toll of 1003 lives upon this one island from over 30 wrecks, yet the graves are very few…”

Related posts:

04-06-1870: Christ Church, Acland Street, St Kilda, Melbourne, Victoria.

Foot notes:

[1] Australian Dictionary of Biography: William Nicholson M.L.A (1816-1865)

[2] The Argus, Melbourne, Vic, Tuesday 30th June 1874, page 1.
“NICHOLSON.- On the 27th April, at Silicroft, Cumberland, England, Miles Nicholson, second son of the late Hon. Wm. Nicholson, aged 28”.

[3] The Argus, Melbourne, Vic, Thursday 4th June 1874, page 1.
“NICHOLSON.- On the 23rd ult., drowned in the wreck of the British Admiral, on King’s Island, William Dalzell Nicholson, third son of the late Hon. Wm. Nicholson, aged 25”.

[6] This is not possible as William Nicholson M.L.A died in 1865. The donor was more likely to have been the remaining brother, George Albert Nicholson.

Other References and accounts:

The Western Australian Times, Perth, WA, Friday 3rd July 1874. Page 3.

The Australasian Sketcher with Pen and Pencil, Melbourne, Vic, Saturday 13th June 1874, page 38.

The Australasian Sketcher with Pen and Pencil, Melbourne, Vic, Saturday 11th July 1874, page 58


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