Lost Australian history: striking gold and the world's largest photo

In this week's lost Australian history, Michael Adams explains how Bernhardt Holtermann captivated the world with a massive aerial panoramic photograph of Sydney, and the world's largest chunk of gold.

The world’s biggest nugget - and biggest photo

In the mid-1870s, more than a century before the first tourist pressed their Kodak camera up against a window at Centrepoint Tower, people all over the globe were amazed by a huge aerial panoramic photograph of Sydney.

Holtermann's dazzling aerial photo of Sydney is 9.78 metres wide and was taken to promote Australia's progress to the rest of the world.

This mid-1870s marvel was the world’s biggest photograph – and it came about thanks to the discovery of the world’s biggest chunk of gold!

Amazingly, one man was responsible for both. Bernhardt Holtermann.

Bernhardt Holtermann was born on 29 April 1838 in Hamburg and he came to Australia to seek his fortune at the age of 20.

Unable to speak English, he worked as a ship’s steward and waiter before trying his hand as a gold miner around Hill End, 75km north-west of Bathurst.

Bernhardt and a business partner pinned their hopes on their Star of Hope mine at Hawkins Hill.

But for many years Star of Hope was pretty hopeless, and through the 1860s, Bernhardt had to work other jobs to stay afloat.

He and his partner also kept the dream alive by taking in half a dozen other shareholders in their mine.

Persistence paid off and the Star of Hope began to produce gold in dribs and drabs.

But on 19 October 1872, Bernhardt’s miners struck it lucky beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings.

A detonated charge revealed a ‘wall’ of gold.

This was a massive chunk of quartz and slate that was 1.5 metres long and weighed 286 kg.

Embedded in it was 93kg of gold.

It was the world’s largest single mass of gold.

While not technically a nugget, and while Bernhardt hadn’t personally found it, this whopper was nevertheless dubbed ‘The Holtermann Nugget’.

It was then valued at £12,000. On today’s gold market, it’d fetch around $8.7m.

Before it was crushed, Bernhardt got Hill End photographers, Beaufoy Merlin and Charles Bayliss of the American and Australasian Photographic Company, to make a picture of him with this marvellous monster.

Bernhardt put his new wealth to good use and became photographic patron to Merlin and Bayliss.

His idea was that they’d travel Australia taking photographs of people and places for an international show that would travel the world and encourage immigration Down Under.

Sadly, Merlin soon died of pneumonia.

But Charles Bayliss picked up the photographic mantel and, with Bernhardt footing the bill, he made thousands of images in just a few short years.

These ranged from the Glebe Island Bridge in 1873 and Williamstown’s Railway Pier in 1874, to wonderful pictures of shopfronts, mines and people in the NSW and Victorian goldfields.

This photos were made with the time-consuming wet-plate process that resulted in stunningly detailed images of nearly unlimited resolution.

Bernhardt also bought a mansion and land at Lavender Bay that overlooked Sydney Harbour.

For an even better view, he built a distinctive square tower.

It was from this mini-skyscraper that he’d be the producer of the photographic marvel of the age.

Under his direction, Charles Bayliss made a huge panorama of Sydney and the harbour.

Two of these glass plate negatives were almost the size of Bernhardt’s famous nugget ¬– measuring 152cm by 91cm – which made them the biggest wet plate negatives in history.

When 23 of these images were joined together, they created a Sydney panorama that was 978cm long, which was claimed as the largest photo on earth.

There were numerous other panoramas, too.

The Sydney panorama picture – the IMAX of its age – was displayed at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia and then at the 1878 Paris Exposition Universelle Internationale.

Millions of visitors to both of these shows got their first glimpse of Sydney and heard about Australia in person from Bernhardt Holtermann.

When he returned to Australia, Bernhardt dabbled in patent medicines, was elected to the NSW Legislative Assembly and died of ‘dropsy’ on 29 April 1885 – which happened to be his 47th birthday.

Gold, photography and medicines ... this early Australian entrepreneur always had a go.

His photo collection languished in obscurity until 1951 when the editor of the magazine Australasian Photo-Review traced the plates to a garden shed in a Chatswood property that had been owned by one of Holtermann’s sons.

There awaited stacks of cedar boxes containing some 3500 negatives in near perfect condition.

The Holtermann Collection was donated to the State Library in 1952.

Digitised a decade ago, it’s one of the greatest historic photographic collections.

Meanwhile, the Australian Museum holds a recently restored replica of the Holtermann Nugget that started it all this week in 1872.

The Balibó 5

It took nearly a month for the Australian Government to confirm the fate of the Balibo 5 journalists who were killed on October 16 in 1975.

Conflict in neighbouring East and West Timor boiled over in October 1975 as Indonesian forces battled against East Timor's Fretilin

Australian-based journalists Greg Shackleton, Gary Cunningham, Tony Stewart, Malcolm Rennie and Brian Peters were sent by television channels 7 and 9 to East Timor to investigate hit-run attacks along the border with Indonesian-controlled West Timor. They never came home. Another journalist, Roger East, went missing later in December.

A NSW Coronial Inquiry in 2007 found 2 Indonesian soldiers were responsible for the deaths of the journalists and found:

"Brian Raymond Peters, in the company of fellow journalists Gary James Cunningham, Malcolm Harvie Rennie, Gregory John Shackleton and Anthony John Stewart, collectively known as “the Balibó Five”, died at Balibó in Timor- Leste on 16 October 1975 from wounds sustained when he was shot and/or stabbed deliberately, and not in the heat of battle, by members of the Indonesian Special Forces."

The accursed beach! Shipwrecks and prime ministers ...

In the 1880s, the steamship Cheviot was one of the many proud vessels that plied the waters between Melbourne and Sydney.

An iron vessel, 70 metres long and 10 metres wide, the ship had been built in Newcastle in the England in 1870.

Cheviot had been made especially for the Australian intercolonial coastal trade and had served faithfully, though, like most steamships, the vessel had suffered its share of breakdowns and minor accidents.

About a decade into the ship’s colonial career, its owners gave the steamer a thorough mechanical makeover, with a new propeller fitted, the engines overhauled and the boilers reinforced.

Good as new, they said, and as a result of this work, the vessel was rated as A1 by insurer Lloyd’s of London.

On 19 October 1887, under Captain Thomas B. Richardson, Cheviot set off from Melbourne on a routine journey to Sydney.

The ship carried 59 souls – 36 crew, 23 passengers – along with £8000 worth of cargo that included wine, foodstuffs and metals.

To exit Port Phillip Bay, the iron Cheviot had to pass through The Rip, aka The Heads, between Point Nepean and Point Lonsdale.

This turbulent stretch of water, which connects the bay with Bass Strait, is 3.5 km wide.

But the actual navigable stretch of water is less that one-third of that due to the reefs and submerged rocks jutting from the points.

Around 9pm, while in The Rip, in heavy seas, off Point Nepean, disaster struck Cheviot.

The propellor was suddenly no more – likely it had smashed against an undersea rock and shattered into a thousand pieces.

In any case, Cheviot’s boilers and engines were now useless.

The ship was powerless and at the mercy of the waves and the gale-force winds driving them towards the shore.

Panicked passengers took to the deck and watched in horror as their doom awaited on the rocky stretch of coast known simply as the ‘Back Beach’.

The captain ordered distress rockets to be fired and sails hoisted.

But it was too late to save Cheviot and the ship was hurled against the reef.

Within 15 minutes, the vessel broke in half.

Then it was dashed and smashed.

Three people got away in a dinghy and another 18 were rescued by the Queenscliff lifeboat.

One crew member swam to safety and two more people were saved by a rope that was fired by rocket from the shore.

But by the morning of 20 October, 35 people were dead.

Some were swept into the sea and battered against the rocks.

Others were trapped and drowned in the Cheviot’s forward cabin.

Victoria hadn’t seen a shipwreck so deadly.

In honour of those who’d been lost, Back Beach was named Cheviot Beach.

Not that you’d want to go swimming there because of the reefs, the rocks and the strong permanent rips.

Even if you did want to risk fate with a splash, Point Nepean was during the 20th century a restricted area, used first for quarantine purposes, and later as part of an Australian Army training school.

But one chap who was able to get access was the politician Harold Holt, first been elected to federal office in 1935.

Prime Minister Harold Holt was known for his love of the water, where he met his suspected demise.

He loved the place for its privacy and the snorkelling opportunities it offered – including the wreck of the Cheviot.

He even salvaged parts of the ship that were donated to local museums.

In January 1966, following the retirement of Robert Menzies, the stylish and sporty Holt took over as Australian prime minister.

In November that year, Holt faced a federal election.

Boosted by the recent visit of US President Lyndon Johnson, and campaigning on a platform of conscription and increased commitment to the Vietnam War, the Liberal leader won in an landslide.

On 17 December 1967, this popular, stylish and sporty prime minister went with some friends to Port Nepean.

Their reason?

To watch a solo round-the-world yachtsman navigate his way through The Rip.

Fingers crossed he didn’t come acropper like the Cheviot.

The yachtie got through fine and afterwards the PM and his party went to Holt’s beloved Cheviot Beach.

There, despite huge waves breaking furiously, Harold Holt decided to have a swim.

He strode into the surf, got swallowed up and was never seen again.

Of course, it would’ve been disrespectful to the 35 dead of the Cheviot to rename Cheviot Beach as Holt Beach.

Instead, an opportunity arose to honour Australia’s lost leader in the Melbourne suburb of Malvern, where Holt had been the local member since 1949.

The new swim centre was then under construction.

It was going to be called the City of Malvern Olympic Swimming Centre.

Instead, in a fine if unintended bit of black humour, it’d be named the Harold Holt Memorial Swimming Centre.

While the general public are still prohibited from accessing Cheviot Beach, due to path collapses and those eternally dangerous waters, the Harold Holt Swim Centre is among Melbourne’s most popular places to have a safe splash and attracts some 400,000 visitors annually.

Kamikaze vs Australia

In October 1944, the world saw a new phase in the war in the Pacific.

Faced with ‘Operation Musketeer’, a 550-strong Allied armada hellbent on liberating the Philippines, the Japanese adopted a new strategy of using suicide pilots.

They called themselves  ‘kamikaze’, which means ‘Divine Wind’ and referred to a destructive typhoon that had once sunk a Mongol Emperor’s fleet.

Just after dawn on 21 October, the first such kamikaze struck at the HMAS Australia, flagship of the Royal Australian Navy.

The pilot, whose plane had been hit by anti-aircraft fire from another allied ship, did a U-turn and aimed his aircraft at the Australia’s bridge.

He hit the superstructure just above the ship’s command centre.

There was a massive explosion of burning aviation fuel.

Speaking with The Age journalist Robert de Lisle in 2004, Des Shinkfield, who’d been a 19-year-old midshipman, recalled of the horrific aftermath:

‘There were the bodies of the dead and dying strewn across the decks. Some of the men were in dreadful agony from burns, others had suffered wounds from hot metal fragments, most were in shock. There was burning debris everywhere.’

The human toll was appalling ¬– seven officers and 23 sailors were killed.

Among those killed was Captain Emile Dechaineux.

Another 56 crew men suffered burns and wounds.

The explosion severely damaged the electrical and steering systems and crippled HMAS Australia.

But the ship would be repaired and rejoin the war in January 1945.

Incredibly, and tragically, HMAS Australia would be hit on five further separate occasions by kamikazes.

While these attacks would take another  56 lives, the ship was never damaged beyond repair and lived to fight on until the end of the war.

As Roger de Lisle wrote: ‘HMAS Australia survived, but carried with her the dubious distinction of having been one of the most ‘kamikazied’ ships in the allied fleet.

An illustration of the attack.

Run over the bastards!

On 20 October 1966, Australia received its first-ever American presidential visitor in the form of the towering Texan Lyndon B. Johnson.

Australia’s prime minister Harold Holt was thrilled to bits and even gushed of the president and first lady during his welcome speech: ‘They’re really here’.

President Johnson’s tour was about mutual back-scratching.

Back in June, Holt had gone to Washington and uttered his most famous line: ‘All the Way with LBJ!’

All the way where?

LBJ's visit to Australia was not without controversy.

War in Vietnam

Now, for a few days in October, LBJ was returning the favour, supporting Holt as he went into his first federal election as prime minister.

While pop culture has us thinking the mid-1960s was chock-a-block with hippie peaceniks, President Johnson’s arrival in Sydney was cheered by the mainstream and the streets were lined with supporters.

Tickertape fluttered from office windows bearing the message: ‘Hip Hip Hooray for LBJ’.

But anti-conscription, anti-Vietnam War protestors did stage rowdy protests, which included hurling paint at the official car carrying the president, Holt and NSW Premier Robert Askin.

When activists tried to stop the motorcade by laying down on the road, Premier Askin infamously said: ‘Run over the bastards!’

Happily, the protestors weren’t run over.

The President did make an unexpected return to Australia at the end of 1967.

He didn’t come to thank Holt but to pay his respects to the man who’d disappeared off Cheviot Beach.

Happy Birthday to the Sydney Opera House

Seven years after LBJ’s visit, on 20 October 1973, Sydney welcomed a more beloved foreign leader - Queen Elizabeth II - for a reason we could all agree was worth celebrating - the opening of the Opera House.

Birthdays are all about fun and numbers, so here are a five fun numbers for this special 50th birthday.

233: the number of designs submitted to the international design-our-opera house competition that was held in 1956.

14: the number of years construction took, just a lazy decade more than expected.

102:  how many millions of dollars it cost, a mere $95m over budget.

35: how many kilometres of pipes circulate sea water from the harbour that’s used to power the cooling and heating systems.

1980: the year that Arnold Schwarzenegger won his last Mr Olympia title, this bodybuilding-a-palooza held in the Concert Hall!

Michael Adams hosts the  Forgotten Australia podcast and is the author of true crime books The Murder Squad and Hanging Ned Kelly.

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