The 16 Year Old Heroine of the South West

I’d like to bring to your attention, the story of one Grace Bussell and the family’s stockman, Sam Yebble Isaacs, the son of a Native American mariner and a local Wardandie tribe mother.

While they’re not part of my family tree, the Bussell family are intertwined with mine, the first of their family arrived at the Swan River Colony with my GGGreat Grandfather, John Foss Tonkinon the ship Warrior  in 1830.

This story is about the heroically brave actions of this young girl and the stockman who worked for her father. They lived on a large property in what is now part of the Margaret River area while the nearby town of Busselton is named after the prominent family.

Early one morning, on 1 December 1876, Sam Isaacs was walking along the cliffs over Calgardup Bay when he spotted a ship in distress and its occupants taking to the rough waves.

The half sail, half steamer ship SS Georgette had left the Fremantle port 2 days prior, intending to reach Adelaide via Bunbury, Busselton & Albany, when a leak was discovered, albeit a bit too late.
Finally detected at 4am, the crew found the pumps weren’t working and soon enough most passengers were involved in using buckets to assist in bailing out the water. Two hours on, the job was deemed hopeless and the lifeboats were swung out. But a giant wave smashed the small boat in half as it was lowered and the 20 passengers it contained were flung into the rising swell.
Two women and 5 children drowned as the others scrambled to the second lowered lifeboat in an attempt to get to shore.

Back up on the cliffs, Sam saw what was unfolding and headed back to the homestead to raise the alarm. Ellen Bussell and her sixteen year old daughter Grace were the only ones home, so Sam and Grace grabbed some ropes, saddled their horses and raced back to the cliffs.

Without a Moment's Hesitation she Dashed with her Noble Steed Down the Cliff ...A third lifeboat was now in the water facing great danger from the rough waves threatening to capsize those in it. Passengers in the boat suddenly saw a young lady appear at the top of the cliffs and thought that surely she didn’t intend to ride the horse down the steep rocks, which seemed impossible. But down the jagged face she rode at speed with all the courage she could muster.

Down into the foaming sea she rode and out past the breakers. At one stage her horse tripped on a rope and was nearly lost, but she was soon astride the lifeboat as women and children first scrambled to take hold of the horse or ropes attached. Grace then headed back to shore landing them safely, sending Sam out on his horse to fetch the remaining.

Meanwhile the Georgette had grounded and was breaking up. Onboard, Captain John Godfrey was sending more lifeboats into the water but each capsized and over the next four hours, Sam and Grace went back and forth between land and sea to save as many passengers as they could. Unfortunately out of the 50 souls aboard, 12 drowned.

They then headed back home, arriving in a state of collapse. Grace’s father, Alfred Bussell, organised a rescue party and reached the survivors by the next morning taking them to Walcliffe where Ellen Bussell made them comfortable and fed them.

The story hit the newspapers and Grace was hailed a heroine. The Royal Humane Society awarded her a silver medal and (although no doubt was equally as courageous) awarded Sam Isaacs a bronze medal. The Board of Trade also gifted Grace a gold watch in recognition of her gallant conduct. The family was compensated ₤100 for feeding, clothing and housing the survivors.

There was uproar over Sam being given a bronze when he had obviously risked his life as much as Grace. This was later rectified and Sam was given 100 acres of Crown land, which he later chose near Prevelly and lived the remainder of his life there with his family.

A young surveyor, Frederick Slade Drake-Brockman, read about Grace in the newspapers and rode all the way down from Perth, to meet her. They later married in 1882, and Frederick named in tribute the town Gracetown and inland Lake Grace, after his wife. A street in Canberra is also named in her honour.

Grace lived to the grand age of 75 and died in Guildford, WA, in 1935.

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