6 February 2023

Riverina Rewind: The overturned skiff, the maid and the Lake Albert rescue

| Chris Roe
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overturned boat

An artist’s impression of the Lake Albert rescue. Photo: Chris Roe.

Today we are heading back to the early 20th century and a dramatic rescue on the waters of Lake Albert.

While the lake is currently closed to the public due to a blue-green algae bloom brought on by the hot and humid weather, the man-made watercourse has long been a focus for recreation and the occasional adventure.

Known by early settlers as ‘Swampy Plain’, the little village adopted the grander title of ‘Lake Albert’ in the 1860s and lobbied for the next three decades to develop the muddy patch into a recreational waterway worthy of its royal name.

By the time our story begins in 1906, the ‘Lake Albert Improvement League’ had succeeded in developing the site and two years of rain had ended the drought and filled it to the brim.

It was a cool Saturday afternoon in September when the Headley brothers, 20-year-old Harry and 14-year-old Audry, decided to put the little boat they had been building to the test.

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The pair were the sons of well-known Wagga brewer H.S. Headley and they enlisted 17-year-old Richard Fosbery and 14-year-old Arthur Lloyd to help manoeuvre the three-metre skiff onto the lake.

They were soon having a whale of a time and according to the Wagga Wagga Advertiser, “the lads managed the skiff with excellent skill”.

But as is often the case, things turned choppy as the afternoon wore on and about 4 pm the little boat was struck by a heavy squall and capsized right in the middle of the lake.

The boys were thrown into the water and despite being good swimmers they were hampered by their clothes and the cold of the deep water.

Rather than swimming for the shore, they clung to the upturned boat and attempted to float it to safety.

But the going was slow and after half an hour they were numbed with cold, suffering cramps and starting to realise that they were in serious trouble!

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But as panic began to set in, a tiny boat appeared, ploughing through the waves in their direction with 16-year-old Miss Shearer at the tiller.

The teenager was employed as a maid by a Miss Caldwell and worked in her home on the shore of the lake. Realising the boys were in trouble, she had taken charge of a nearby vessel to sail to their aid.

The boat proved too small to carry all five of them so she took the two youngest onboard, aiming to ferry them to shore before returning for the others.

By this time, the situation had attracted the attention of others and Mr Cunningham retrieved the older lads.

As they were returned safely to dry land, Miss Caldwell was standing by with warm drinks and dry clothes and the boys remarked that if it had not been for the arrival of the plucky Miss Shearer, they feared they may have drowned.

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