Shocking Catastrophe! The Explosion of the Little Nell

It was a clear and fine day, on Wednesday 18th February 1874. Steamer Little Nell departed George Town for Launceston, as she did thrice weekly. But the journey on this day was to be catastrophic.


The road between George Town and Launceston was a distance of around 30 miles, which in 1874 took approximately 6-8 hours by horseback. The poor condition of the road meant it was impossible for a carriage to traverse. The Tamar River therefore became the highway between the two northern settlements.

Little Nell Advertisement

Little Nell was a steamboat that travelled between Launceston and George Town on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, with a return trip from George Town on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays for a fare of 7 shillings and sixpence (around $48 in today’s money). Before her life steaming up and down the Tamar, Nell had been based in Hobart where she was known as the Resolute.


Ellen Jones was born in 1848 to John and Ellen Jones (nee Cochlin). John Jones was the storekeeper of the Iron Store in George Town.

Little is known of Ellen’s life until she married orphaned farmer Felix McCarron, at St Mary Magdalene in George Town on 26 December 1863 at fifteen years of age. The age of consent at the time was twelve years for women, though the average age of marriage for women in neighbouring colony Victoria was 22.8 years. When considering Ellen’s marriage, her parents may have been influenced by the experience of their eldest daughter absconding with her desired husband when they declined the request for her to marry at fifteen years of age. During their marriage, Ellen and Felix had five children, with the births of Catherine, Felix William, Amy, Fred and Ellen Edith between 1864 and 1873. Through their marriage, Ellen and Felix resided at ‘Musk Vale’, a property four miles (6.4 kilometres) from George Town, on the Piper’s River road.


On the 18th February 1874, Nell departed George Town for her usual Wednesday journey to Launceston. On board were the three crew and five passengers. Another three passengers were to join during the journey.

NamePlace EmbarkedComments
William GardinerGeorge TownCaptain
Thomas McCannGeorge TownEngineer
William RuttleyGeorge TownShip’s Boy
John RussellGeorge TownManager of Excelsior Gold Mine
Thomas HicksonGeorge TownPartners with Messrs Godwin and Sandberg, of a rich mining claim at 9 mile Spring
Mr WalbourneGeorge TownProprieter of the Black Boy
Ellen McCarron and infantGeorge TownBoarded with her youngest child, 4 month old Ellen Edith
Mary Ann WelshPoint Rapid16 years old. Had been on her way home after staying with her aunt at East Arm
Mr McDonaldSidmouthA storekeeper
George KerrisonGravelly BeachA farmer

It had been an early start for Ellen and baby Ellen Edith. On the morning of the journey Felix walked to George Town with his wife and infant, leaving them at half-past six in the morning, to return to work some four miles away. The purpose of the journey is unknown, however as Ellen’s sister Esther Begent (nee Jones) was living in Launceston Ellen may have been visiting family

Little Nell departed George Town at half-past eight with Ellen and Ellen Edith onboard. The trip was uneventful until ten minutes past noon, when Nell was nearing Rostella, approximately eight miles from Launceston. Ellen was sitting in the fore-cabin with Ellen Edith in her arms at the time. Nell was passed by tug-boat Tamar. It has been said that Nell’s engineer decided to race, however a witness at the inquest deposed that Nell maintained a steady rate. Nell’s piston rod broke and the steamer came to a halt. The engineer did not release the safety valve to release pressure before opening the door to the heavy coal fire and the boiler exploded instantly. Witnesses reported seeing bodies thrown into the air from the force of the explosion.

A Mr Gilder and his son James were on their cutter Margaret, which was ahead of the Nell and Tamar, and witnessed the explosion. James got into the dinghy and rowed to where he could see people in the water. His father steered Margaret to the scene. James rowed between Mr McDonald and Ellen McCarron, and was able to grab hold of both of them. He fastened a rope around Ellen. He later reported that she was screaming for her child, who was unable to be seen. With difficulty, James pulled both Mr McDonald and Ellen into the dinghy. His father pointed out two other people but James was unable to reach them before they sank. He then rowed to Thomas Hickson, who was holding on to debris to remain afloat. By this time, his father had joined him in the dinghy and helped him pull Hickson into the boat. McDonald reportedly had severe injuries, and was transferred to the Margaret for conveyance to Launceston.

Looking along the Tamar River from Brady’s Lookout

James rowed Ellen to Freshwater Point, the property of Mr Griffiths, where Ellen was assisted into dry clothes by Mrs Griffiths. Ellen reportedly had severe burns to both arms, both legs, her back and her face. She was placed in Mr Griffith’s dog-cart where she was made as comfortable as possible. Mr Walker of Rostella, who had witnessed the explosion, drove Ellen to the Launceston General Hospital, driving carefully to not add to her pain.

The Launceston General Hospital had been built in 1863 and was described as being admired by all that visited it for its airiness and cleanliness. Ellen arrived there around half-past five in the evening and was seen immediately by Dr McQueen. The treatment likely to have been received was cooling of the burns by ice or immersion in cold fluid.

Over the coming days, the search continued for the bodies of those who died in the explosion. Infant Ellen Edith’s body was recovered from the Tamar River the following day, Saturday 21 February. By Sunday 22 February 1874, numerous people were visiting the wreck of Nell, which had been moored at Haly’s dock. It was reported that there was surprise at the complete destruction of the machinery, deck and inner fittings. Only Nell’s shell remained.

Newspaper accounts reported that despite the severity of the burns, Ellen had rallied and was expected to recover. Sadly this was not to be the case. Ellen died at the Launceston General Hospital on Monday 23 February 1874. A significant cause of mortality for burn victims is infection, with burn size being a further indicator of probable death. With the significant burns Ellen was described to have, along with the risk of infection, death had been likely. Her husband, Felix, organised for the bodies of Ellen and Ellen Edith to be conveyed to George Town on the SS Pioneer for burial, leaving Launceston on 24 February 1874.

The Last Days of Ellen McCarron (c)

The Inquest into the disaster was held at the Marine Hotel in Launceston, throughout March 1874. A Mr Edwards was part-owner of Nell and had been her engineer when she was based in Hobart Town. He deposed that he had never exceeded 80lbs of steam pressure, but had been reliably informed that since Nell had moved to the Tamar she regularly had 110lbs on. Mr Edwards indicated that with the steamer stopping for 5 minutes due to the broken piston, a further 20 lbs of steam would have accumulated, bringing the steam pressure to 130lbs. This, he stated, was sufficient to cause an explosion.

Thomas Hickson, survivor of the disaster, gave evidence at the Inquest. He stated that he believed Nell had been travelling at a steady pace, with the tug Tamar passing her. When Nell stopped, stated Hickson, he went to the boiler room. The engineer told him the piston rod had broken. There was a good, heavy coal fire going and the engineer did not let off the steam when the piston rod broke. McGann opened the door to draw the fire and the boiler immediately exploded.

Various other witnesses gave account of witnessing the explosion and of finding the bodies of the deceased. Felix McCarron, in a distressed state, gave evidence regarding his wife’s last days.

The jury after half an hour’s consultation delivered the following verdict – The accident to the steamer Little Nell and consequent death of Helen (sic) Edith McCarron and other passengers, was occasioned by the bursting of the boiler through overpressure, but there is no evidence to show the cause of the overpressure.

The following rider was added, however –

This jury desire to express their opinion that some Government oversight of all steam boilers working in the colony should be instituted, and that persons in charge of engines at work should be duly qualified and licensed.

NELL’S FATE                  

Though Nell had been left just a shell, she was repaired, converted to a sailing ketch and re-named Rescue. Rescue traded for some time on the North-West Coast, until she was lost off Circular Head with a load of potatoes.


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Branagan, JG, George Town: History of the Town and District, Launceston, Regal Publications, 1980.

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Hussain, H. and Choukairi, F., ‘To cool or not to cool: Evolution of the treatment of burns in the 18th century’, International Journal of Surgery, Vol. 11, pp. 503-506)

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Launceston Examiner.

Lee, K.C., Joory, K. and Moiemen, N.S., ‘History of burns: The past, present and future’ Burns & Trauma Vol. 2, Issue 4, pp. 169-180.

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