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Portland Lifeboat in the Botanic Gardens. Glenelg Shire Council Cultural Collection.

She was used to save dozens of people during her lifetime, most notably during the sinking of the Admella in 1859, but no-one would ever suspect that such a hardy stalwart of Portland's maritime history would herself be in need of rescue.

The Portland Lifeboat was, in 1989, salvaged from its resting place in the town's botanic gardens, lovingly and painstakingly restored over eight years, and a new home built so she could rest in perpetuity.

The Portland Lifeboat, which was built in 1858 in Williamstown and served until 1915, is one of the oldest surviving shore-based lifeboats in Australia. Taking great pride in her history, Portland residents have looked after her well and she remains on display in the town today as the centrepiece of the displays at the Maritime Discovery Centre.


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The lifeboat crew, rowing away from the lifeboat shed on the pier. Glenelg Shire Council Cultural Collection.

While she assisted in many rescues over the 55 years she was in service, the lifeboat's biggest feat was under the command of Captain James Fawthrop in 1859 when the steam ship Admella, en route from Adelaide to Melbourne, struck Carpenter Rocks off the South Australian coastline, killing 89 people including many children.

The ship was just two kilometres from shore but due to treacherous reefs, horrendous weather and the subsequent high seas, no vessel could reach the many people left clinging to boat wreckage in order to stay alive. Only a handful of people survived the eight days floating in the ocean as they were pummelled by massive waves.

Finally, the Portland Lifeboat was towed to the scene and the heroic deeds of the Captain and his crew saw the rescue of the final 19 Admella survivors. Fawthrop and his men risked their own lives, navigating the boat through reefs and over waves, sustaining injuries, losing many oars and the boat's rudder in the process, but still they pushed on.


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The Portland lifeboat under sail. Glenelg Shire Council Cultural Collection.

According to The Age newspaper, the tragedy brought "all of Australia to a halt. There was immense bravery and self-sacrifice, and immense suffering".

Afterwards, each lifeboat crew member was presented with an Admella Commission Medal, a Board of Trade medal and cash bonuses to honour their bravery and their names are etched on a brass plaque that now resides next to the lifeboat in the Portland Maritime Discovery Centre.


Lifeboat crew

The Portland lifeboat crew. Gift of the Port of Portland, 1996. Glenelg Shire Council Cultural Collection.

When she was retired in 1915, the lifeboat was placed in the Portland Botanic Gardens as a lasting tribute to the men who demonstrated such immense courage during the Admella rescue.

A shelter was placed over the boat in later years but it was in the 1980s when it was recognised the simple structure was not adequate – the lifeboat needed to be preserved and protected in a much more suitable way.


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Certificate presented to Portland lifeboat crew member Arthur Dusting in 1907 for 15 years’ service. Gift of Arthur Dusting, 2009. Glenelg Shire Council Cultural Collection.

In 1989 the Portland Maritime Heritage Advisory Committee was formed and the lifeboat relocated and, in true Portland style, a huge, week-long party thrown to celebrate the commencement of restoration works.

In 1998, the lifeboat became the centrepiece of the Portland Maritime Discovery Centre, a building that was designed especially to house the boat. The centre was actually built around the lifeboat – after its restoration was complete, the vessel was moved into place at the eastern end and the walls and roof erected.


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Portland Lifeboat on display in the Portland Maritime Discovery Centre.

As a rare surviving example of its type in Australia, the Portland Lifeboat is one of Glenelg Shire's most significant historical items. And you can see it for yourself at the Portland Maritime Discovery Centre.


What were the names of Captain Fawthrop's team of men who took part in the Admella rescue?

How is the Portland Lifeboat constructed, and why is it unique?

What kind of conservation work has been undertaken over the years to ensure the preservation of the Portland Lifeboat?

To find the answers to all these questions and more, visit the Portland Maritime Discovery Centre, where you will find photographs, newspaper articles, documents, plaques ... and the lifeboat itself! And you'll also find passionate volunteers willing to share their immense knowledge with you!


History House – Museum and Research Centre

Cliff Street, Portland VIC 3305 (PO Box 409)

Phone: (03) 5522 2266

Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Open daily 10am-noon and 1pm-4pm. Closed Good Friday and Christmas Day. 


Portland Maritime Discovery Centre

Lee Breakwater Road, Portland VIC 3305

Phone: 1800 035 567

Open 9am-5pm daily except Christmas Day.