The SS Georgette was a steamship with a short, unsuccessful career, but in the four years of her existence, played a role in two daring rescues. Built in Scotland in 1872, she came to Western Australia the following year as part of a passenger service between Fremantle, Albany, and Geraldton.
In April 1876, an American whaler called the Catalpa rescued Fenian political prisoners from Fremantle Gaol: the Fenians were Irish republican nationalists, and the organisation was founded in the United States and named after the Fianna. The Catalpa dropped anchor in international waters, and sent a whaleboat to collect the prisoners. While they were still rowing back to the Catalpa, the Georgette (which had been commandeered by the navy) was sent to intercept them, but was too late – the prisoners had already boarded the Catalpa.
The next day, having received official orders, the Georgette returned and demanded the prisoners back, but being in international waters, the Catalpa told them to buzz off. After firing a warning shot and risking a diplomatic incident, the Georgette rather pointlessly pursued the Catalpa until it was low on fuel. The Fenians made it safely to America in a few months, and I think we’ll hear more of their story next year, because now we have to get back to the Georgette.
1876 wasn’t a good year for the Georgette, because around midnight on December 1, while taking passengers and jarrah wood from Fremantle to Adelaide, she sprung a leak near Margaret River. The ship’s pumps would not work, and by 4 am, all the passengers and crew were desperately bailing water out with buckets while the captain made for the shore. The rising water extinguished the ship’s fires, leaving her drifting a few kilometres from the coastline. Lifeboats were lowered, but the first one was thrown against the ship by a wave and broke in half; some of its occupants were rescued by a second lifeboat, but several women and children perished.
As the Georgette drifted into Calgardup Bay, it was spotted from the shore by an Indigenous stockman named Sam Yebble Isaacs, who was employed by the Bussells, a prosperous family of early settlers that the city of Busselton is named for. Sam ran for the homestead to raise the alarm, but the only people there were the Bussells’ sixteen-year-old daughter, Grace, and her mother.
Grace and Sam rode down to the bay on horseback to find the Georgette had now run aground and was breaking up. To the amazement of the watching shipwreck victims, Grace and Sam rode straight down the cliffs and out into the surf, swimming their horses into the sea. They carried as many people to shore as they could, and Grace and Sam continued their exhausting rescue mission for four hours, as the captain kept launching lifeboats which immediately capsized in the dangerous surf. Out of the fifty people on board the Georgette, all but a dozen were saved.
When the survivors had all been carried to Redgate Beach, the Bussell family sent a bullock dray to collect them, and provided food and accommodation for two days, until a ship could be found to take them to Fremantle.
Grace Bussell’s heroism was reported around the world, and she was hailed as “the Grace Darling of the West” – Grace Darling was a young Englishwoman who became extremely famous for helping to rescue the survivors of a shipwreck. Poems were written in Grace Bussell’s honour; the Royal Humane Society awarded her a silver medal for bravery, and the British government gave her a gold watch and chain.
In contrast, Sam Isaacs received far less attention, even though it had been he who first found the shipwreck, and who had worked alongside Grace for hours. His role was underplayed, or even left out altogether, and when he was mentioned, he was often just identified as a “black servant”.
Sam was awarded a bronze medal for bravery by the Royal Humane Society, and Isaacs family history tells us that he was granted 100 acres of land as part of his reward, became a farmer, and raised a large family. There is a monument to Sam Isaacs in Bussellton Park, and another intriguing American connection is that Sam’s father was a Native American who had worked as a whaler. Sam still has descendants in the area.
Grace’s story had a rather romantic twist because a young surveyor from Perth named Frederick Drake-Brockman heard of her heroic actions. Deciding that this was the girl who must become his future wife, he rode 300 kilometres to meet her, and four years later the couple got married in Bussellton.
Frederick, who was also from a prominent pioneering family, later took on the important role of Surveyor General. As a surveyor, he named the coastal village of Gracetown after his wife, as well as the wheatbelt town of Lake Grace. Grace and Frederick had seven children, and two of their sons became decorated World War I heroes.
At Redgate Beach a large rock that sits off the coast is called Isaacs Rock, and there is a plaque commemorating Grace’s bravery; the ship’s bell from the Georgette is on display at the Augusta Historical Museum. The Georgette itself, which ended lives and changed others, lies beneath the waves, and on a clear day, when the tide is low, you may still be able to see her remains.
Georgette is a feminine form of Georges, the French form of George. A famous namesake is actress Georgette “Googie” Withers, who married an Australian actor and moved here in the 1950s. She had a successful career in the theatre, on Broadway, and on television. She was named an Honourary Officer of the Order of Australia in the 1980s, and only passed away a few years ago at the age of 90.
The name will probably remind many people of British author Georgette Heyer, who wrote popular novels from the 1920s to the 1970s. She virtually created the genre of the historical romance, and any name nerd who has become enamoured with the Georgian and Regency eras has probably read a few of Heyer’s well-researched escapist melodramas, filled with dashing highwaymen, damsels in distress, rich earls, bounders, cads, and beautiful girls who become the toast of society but want to marry for love.
Georgette is also a fabric, a thin crêpe material originally made from silk. It was named after the early 20th century French dressmaker, Georgette de la Plante. Georgette is notable for its crinkly appearance, and was a particular favourite for dresses in the 1930s.
Although it has never charted in Australia, Georgette is found reasonably often in historical records from the late 19th century up to the 1970s. Some of the Australian Georgettes have French surnames, and it also made a rather handy middle name, going well with a variety of first names.
Georgette has something of a period flavour, as it was most popular around the turn of the century, and associated with Regency romances and 1930s fashions. On the other hand, it also seems like a viable choice for a baby born today. Vintage names are back in style, George names for girls are fairly common, and we’re used to names ending in -ette, like Juliette.
This is an elegant name that’s more sophisticated than the standard Georgia or Georgina. It doesn’t appeal to everyone, but some will discern its charms. Georgie would be the standard nickname in Australia, but the French would use Gigi (tres chic!), and Jette would be a very cool nickname.
Georgette received an approval rating of 55%. 21% of people saw it as an unusual, stylish vintage choice, but 16% thought it was ugly and frumpy. Only one person thought Georgette should just be used as a middle name.